For the record, and for those who sit on the San Luis Obispo Cultural Heritage Committee: I like historical homes. For the record, I like their style; I like the fact that they give substance and character to San Luis Obispo; I like the people who buy them, restore them and then adore them.
But (and you just knew a “but” was coming, didn’t you?), a proposed law that deals with historic preservation within the city seems harsh in its scope and potential application — or does it?
The above-mentioned committee and city planning staff have been hammering out the new ordinances over the past eight months. There are parts of the new law that seem, well, odd. The first is that a passel of individuals — chief building official, city attorney, Cultural Heritage Committee, the City Council “and their designees are hereby authorized to enforce the provisions” of the proposed ordinance.
And the enforcement powers all of these people will have over those who live in San Luis Obispo’s designated historical districts? Imposition of fines up to “$10,000 per violation … In addition, the City may assess a fine ranging from $100 to $5,000 per day,” according to a draft of the ordinance. The fines will be affixed as tax liens on the property owners.
The new ordinance will supplant the already existing “historical guidelines” that have been in place for 30 years on health and safety grounds. And, according to Peg Pinard, the draft ordinance creates a duality among homeowners in San Luis Obispo: Those who don’t live in historical districts won’t come under the same scrutiny as those who do.
Does that have a smell of discrimination to you? Pinard thinks so.
Pinard, as you may recall, sat on the San Luis Obispo City Council at one time and then went on to the county Board of Supervisors. She also happens to own the historic Myron Angel home on Broad Street. In short, she has a dog in this fight.
Her first gripe with the city is that those who will be affected by the ordinance weren’t properly notified as per a section of the city’s Land Use Element of its General Plan. That section says, “To help residents preserve and enhance their neighborhoods, the city will: Involve residents early in reviewing proposed public and private projects that could have neighborhood impacts, by notifying residents and property owners and hold meetings at convenient times and places within the neighborhoods.”
Pinard says that although neighbors within her historic district, known as Old Town, received a postcard saying the city was considering changing codes, it wasn’t specific as to what the changes would be and how residents would be affected.
“Residents were not asked before the draft was written for their feedback on problems they may have experienced within their historic neighborhoods,” she said in an e-mail. “Residents were not asked before the draft was written what has worked for them under the existing guidelines and what hasn’t.”
Pinard added that, “Residents understand that being given a date to ‘show up’ for a hearing late in the process and comment on a finished draft is not the same thing as early and meaningful input.”
Hmmmm. That doesn’t quite jibe with Kim Murry’s take on the situation. As the city’s deputy director of long-range planning, Murry says some 700 postcards were sent out to those who will be affected by the ordinance.
In addition, the city sent out links to the draft report as it changed. In addition to residents, the city has been working with the Chamber of Commerce, the Downtown Association and the Board of Realtors.
To date, there have been eight public meetings with the historical committee and one with the Architectural Review Commission. In short, it sounds like there’s been opportunity for resident input.
But Pinard brings up a key point in an e-mail: “Given the thousands of pages of existing property and building code laws … what, exactly, is not already covered under existing laws?”
Indeed, in a town that has outlawed couches on roofs, trucks on lawns, smoking in downtown and feeding ducks, the question is begged: Aren’t historical districts already encumbered with enough rules and regulations without having to adopt laws with stiff penalties and fines?
According to Murry, the ordinance is designed to meet state criteria for historical districts; it’s been the one area that hasn’t been addressed in existing city guidelines.
Other than coming into compliance with state historical codes, where’s the need for such draconian fines, though?
Pinard ties it to the city looking at these homes as potential cash cows.
“How can residents be guaranteed that this ordinance won’t be used as a source of revenue by the city? The city is being seen as just wanting to take more power over regular residents. The city is seen as creating unnecessary work for itself and passing the costs on to a select population. It is giving itself power to guarantee payment by placing a lien on homes.”
The city’s position is that there have been a few cases of what Murry calls “demolition by neglect” of historic homes.
“It doesn’t happen often, but there are cases where owners want to demolish (the old home) and build a new structure. We don’t anticipate having to use it on a regular basis; we want them to rehabilitate (their historic homes).”
Yet Pinard believes the ordinance singles out one group of homeowners for special attention, focus and enforcement. And if that’s the case, what are the chances of these homeowners being able to sell their homes to a prospective buyer, she asks.
According to Murry, Realtors have said that the older homes hold their value. “I couldn’t say if they’ll be difficult to sell because of extra standards, but they hold their property value during economic hard times and tend to raise the value of properties around them,” she said.
In a nutshell, the ordinance will mirror current health and safety enforcement. If a problem (and that won’t be peeling paint or a weed-filled lawn, says Murry) is observed from a public right-of-way, the owner is contacted and has 30 days to notify the city about resolving the problem. An owner or renter can invite a city inspector inside, but a city official can’t simply enter the property.
Council has the ability to make a finding of economic hardship, Murry said, with regard to any needed rehab for someone on a fixed income. “We wanted to set up a historical preservation fund where any fines would go to rehabilitation — but that sounds like money-making for the city. So we’ll look for grants. But the property owner is still responsible for health and safety, so the resident or renter isn’t in danger.”
Draconian or common sense? Take a look for yourself. The draft ordinance can be found at www.slocity.org on the community development page for ordinances and guidelines.
Any questions? The item is on the City Council’s Sept. 21 agenda. City Council members can be reached by e-mail at:
Bill Morem can been reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 781-7852.