Commissioners Favor More Input for Historic Preservation

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The Planning Commission has said it favors having at least one Q-and-A style meeting with the San Marino community before it makes a final historic preservation ordinance recommendation to the City Council, while also already considering a few tweaks to the possible plan.
That much was decided at the Planning Commission’s most recent meeting last week, after commissioners heard from several residents and ultimately voted to continue discussion to a future meeting.
“Let’s take another pass at this and see where we are,” said Howard Brody, the commission’s newly selected vice chairman.
In its deliberation following public comments, commissioners also varyingly supported a citywide survey of structures to assess potential historic value, reducing the minimum age of structures to be considered from 85 to 50 years, adding provisions regarding landscaping and, perhaps most notably, the formation of an appointed commission dedicated to handling applications for historic landmark designation.
“We should be getting a commitment from the City Council on a historic survey prior to or coinciding with this ordinance,” urged resident Shirley Jagels, who through her organization, San Marino Heritage, has advocated for historic preservation and lobbied against some home demolitions.
The proposed ordinance, as currently written, outlines the process by which the city can first add what it deems historic resources — which are simply structures that could, upon evaluation, be considered proper historic landmarks. That list of resources would be called an inventory.
Once a resource on the inventory is fully researched and evaluated, the city would ultimately decide whether to designate the property as a local historic landmark. Such properties would be added to the local historic registry if deemed so, and would thus receive protections from modification or demolition in most circumstances.
To be deemed a historic landmark, the ordinance as-is requires a property to meet one of the following criteria: having distinct identifiable characteristics of a particular historical period, type, style, region or way of life; being associated with people of importance to local, state or national history; being linked to an obsolete but historically significant purpose; having been designed or built by someone deemed influential in their time; having been the site of notable event in local, state or national history; exemplifying a particular architectural style; exemplifying the best remaining architectural type of a neighborhood; embodying elements of outstanding attention to design, detail, material or craftsmanship; or having a unique location, singular characteristic or established visual feature of a neighborhood or the city.
Historic landmark designation also requires the structure to have retained “sufficient integrity to convey its historic, cultural or architectural significance,” per the proposed ordinance.
Landmark designation does not require the owner’s consent, but there is a way to overrule a property owner if he or she actively objects to historic landmark designation.
For an override, the property in question must already be on the inventory of historic resources and the City Council must find that it possesses “exceptional architectural, historical, aesthetic or cultural qualities” and also that landmark designation will preserve those qualities.
Property owners of historic landmarks would be obligated to maintain the quality and integrity of the structure and would, currently, be eligible for Mills Act application. The latter, which some local cities have implemented on a limited basis, allows a property owner to apply for a property tax discount in return for investing in remodeling and maintenance on a historic structure.
A certificate of appropriateness may be required for property work outside of routine maintenance, such as replacing flooring, siding or roofing. The full proposed ordinance (as of the Planning Commission’s meeting) can be viewed on the city’s website.
Although residents have long vocally called for stronger historic preservation regulations, they also voiced several remaining concerns at the meeting.
Regarding the Mills Act, some hope for minimal applications to be accepted initially so as not to impact revenue for the city (the city’s $29 million in proposed expenditures this fiscal year are largely being paid for by an estimated $20 million in property tax revenue).
Many more called for a citywide survey to coincide with the passage of the ordinance, so as to kick-start an inventory of historic resources, while others called for professional consults to help craft an ordinance free of loopholes and also assist with determining a property’s historical significance.
“Who’s going to determine significant contributions?” queried Jagels. “We need dedicated funds and a dedicated staff.”
Jagels also called for a larger public meeting seeking input for the ordinance, so there could be a “dialogue, not a monologue” in its crafting.
For now, the ordinance will be refined based on resident comments, and any future meeting to solicit additional input will, if scheduled, be announced.
“I think to move forward with this ordinance is the right thing to do,” said Commissioner Raymond Cheng.
City Council Gets Defensive on Preservation
Days after the Planning Commission’s discussion regarding historic preservation, the City Council found itself in the firing line later in the week from residents looking for better protection of existing structures in town.
Jagels, at the morning City Council meeting last Friday, summarized to the audience and councilmen the Planning Commission’s discussion on the proposed historic preservation ordinance, explaining it is considering resident input and seeking to have at least another public hearing on the matter.
“They have committed to giving this subject more time,” she said. “We’re not going to rush to put in something that is inferior.
“We also suggested — and it was received favorably — to have a community forum where we can have more input from the community for what we are looking for,” Jagels added, also reiterating her call for dedicated funding and staff to enforce preservation.
Jagels is presently embroiled in a lawsuit with the city over its decision to allow the demolition of the home at 1470 Virginia Road despite what she believes is ample evidence to designate the home as a historic landmark. The City Council in January narrowly allowed the project to continue on a 3-2 vote on the basis the home was not, at the time of project approval, listed as historic and also that the property owners obviously did not wish to designate the home as such.
Former City Councilman Dennis Kneier, whose support for property rights factored into that project’s discussion, cautioned against provisions allowing the city to potentially override a property owner’s wishes to call a home historic. He argued property value could be diminished because potential buyers would be more reluctant to invest in a home they can minimally alter.
“I think we should consider that,” Kneier said.
Resident Michele Lumley, who previously argued alongside Jagels to preserve the Virginia Road home, pointed out the city is well on track to set a record this year for demolished homes and also claimed there is a growing number of homes being built or renovated in town by corporate owners who are then renting out the properties instead of selling to families.
City Council members bristled at her suggestion to implement a moratorium on teardowns until an ordinance is approved, so as to prevent a rash of reconstruction projects before a restriction can prevent them.
“I share your concern on the teardowns, but I’ve come to realize that draconian restrictions are not the answer,” said Councilman Dr. Allan Yung. “If you have better buildings that are a better fit for the community, that is the key.”
Mayor Dr. Richard Sun said he wants to avoid creating a situation in which it is difficult to construct new homes in the city because too many would have been superfluously deemed historic and declared San Marino does not have an alleged “mansionization issue” similar to Arcadia.
“Your house, my house, you think they’ll stick around another 200, 300 years?” Sun asked, referencing the proposal that historic homes be at least 85 years old. “Pretty soon, everyone’s house will become 85 years old.”

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