LCF City Council: No Moratorium on Demolition Permits for Old Homes

Mayor Michael Davitt wasted no time quashing the proposed urgency ordinance that could have established a 45-day moratorium on the issuance of demolition permits for structures 50 years old or more in La Cañada Flintridge.
Before even hearing public comment, Davitt told a packed council chamber at Tuesday’s special meeting: “It’s not going to gather my support,” effectively denying the emergency ordinance outright. It needed approval from all four sitting City Council members to pass; none was in favor.
The ordinance would have temporarily and immediately barred demolition of all structures built 50 or more years ago. A staff report suggested that it was necessary because the city, which has recently received requests to demolish buildings more than a half-century old, currently lacks a procedure for reviewing whether a structure set for demolition has historical significance, which “may result in the loss of historic resources where such assets could have been saved.”
For several months, a Historical Preservation Subcommittee has been exploring whether LCF should implement a permanent ordinance to establish procedures for identifying and protecting historical buildings, but it hasn’t yet recommended one.
Tuesday’s urgency ordinance — discussed at a special meeting because the regular meeting at which it was to be addressed two weeks ago was canceled because of Councilman Dave Spence’s death — was presented as a “stopgap,” City Attorney Mark Steres said.
“It’s not something that’s a little stopgap,” Councilman Jonathan Curtis said. “It’s somewhat shutting down the city and putting up a barrier.”
Curtis also pressed Robert Stanley, the city’s director of community development, about whether city staff should be requiring homeowners to research their property’s history in order to receive a discretionary permit for demolition or construction on structures that are 50 or older, as is currently the case.
“You have no authorization requiring it,” Curtis said. “We do not have standards that have been adopted.”
“It’s not arbitrary. We have a Mitigation Monitoring Program,” said Stanley, pointing to the California Environmental Review Act requirements existing in the General Plan that the city adopted in 2013 calling for city staff to “review project applications to assess whether the building or structure on the subject property has the potential to meet the definition of a historic resource under CEQA.”
“You’re achieving the same thing as the moratorium is proposing by doing that, but through a backdoor,” Curtis said.
“I’m just going by what legal counsel has told us,” Stanley said.
Steres explained that discretionary permits require CEQA review, under which historical significance is included: “If you look up historical significance, it doesn’t mean just properties that are actually listed in the federal, state and local registries, it could also be properties that have the potential to be listed. So that’s kind of the hiccup where staff has been trying to interpret that … there could be some more discretion when it would get triggered, but it is one of the components for environmental review for discretionary projects.”
Those explanations didn’t appear to sway any of the residents in the audience, nor anyone on the dais.
Bill Abel, who owns a LCF-based construction firm, offered council members a long list of features that could eliminate homes from historic consideration: “All one-story ranch houses, all houses with composition roofs … with aluminum windows, with wood windows that have spring sash balances, with stucco, with aluminum gutters, all houses with drywall interior … and any house that the city doesn’t wish to buy. The owners of the house ought to get to do what they want.”
Local architect Dave De Angelis asked the council to curtail the research requirement of homeowners seeking to modify homes, describing it as an added burden to a process that already takes too long.
His clients have recently been required to have historic bios completed for homes built in 1953 and 1955 that are obviously not historic, he said.
“So my clients are forced to take another step, more red tape and hundreds of dollars and four to six weeks of waiting to get these reports,” De Angelis said, adding that after 30 years of working in LCF, in the last five or six, “the difficulty graph has shot straight to the moon.”
De Angelis said approvals that used to take 10 weeks now can take as long as 10 months, calling LCF “the hardest city for me to work in and get a project accomplished.”
Former Councilwoman Laura Olhasso was in office when the General Plan passed, which also established LCF as a city where Mills Act tax relief is available to interested and qualified owners of historic homes.
On Tuesday, she said it was clear that staff needed an effective tool to review the historic value of properties.
“Let’s figure out what direction do we give staff when an identified historic property comes to it: Do you want to encourage rehabilitation of it or do you want to require it? You guys need to work with [City Manager Mark Alexander] and get this done, because the staff is in a bind,” she said.
Mayor Pro Tem Terry Walker seemed to reflect the sentiments of her colleagues when she suggested the council should encourage owners to preserve their historic properties but should stop short of forcing them to.
“We want to encourage. We want to give positive reinforcement for people wanting to save these properties. We don’t want to punish them for not,” Walker said.
Curtis suggested that the city create a registry to better define historic structures, and the council made plans to consider doing so at a future meeting.
“I’m all for protecting historic residence,” Curtis said. “It’s just a question of how you go about it. If we adopt this particular urgency ordinance, we’re literally handing over the decisions to a consultant who’s not a resident of this city and is getting paid to make a certain finding of historical significance.”

SPENCE’S SEAT

With heavy hearts, City Council members decided Tuesday that they will opt to appoint a replacement for Dave Spence, the longtime councilman and six-time mayor who died on May 16 of an apparent heart attack.
The council’s other option would have been to hold a special election, which would have been more costly.
Davitt said applications for the post — which must be filled within 60 days of its having become vacant — will be accepted.
He said he has heard from community members who have expressed interest. Keith Eich, who ran against Spence and Curtis in March’s election, said he will apply.
Eich garnered 1,775 votes in his first campaign. Curtis got 2,665 and Spence received 2,565, which earned him a seventh term on the City Council.

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