Watchful eye over SLO's historic homes

Owners of historic homes in San Luis Obispo could face stiff fines for neglecting their properties under a new set of proposed regulations.

The city’s Cultural Heritage Committee, an advisory body to the City Council, is in the process of creating the city’s first historic preservation ordinance.

The ordinance, still in draft form, spells out procedures and standards for preserving historic buildings and sets penalties of up to $5,000 a day or a one-time fine of up to $10,000 for violations.

“The sanctions are intended to address the most egregious offenses — not for peeling paint or people not putting in the right weather stripping,” city planner Jeff Hook said.

“There have been cases of historic resources that were demolished without approval and others that were demolished by sheer deliberate neglect by allowing the buildings to get so dilapidated that they fell down,” he said.

About 175 properties are included on the city’s master list of historic resources — those structures that are deemed the most unique and important historic properties. There are an additional 500 or so properties on the city’s list of contributing historic resources — a designation that can be applied to structures at least 50 years old that are publicly visible, he said.

Still, some homeowners are concerned that the ordinance will give the city too much control over their properties.

Larry Hoyt owns a home on Chorro Street that has been in his family more than 100 years. The partial adobe house is included on the city’s contributing list of historic resources.

Hoyt said the ordinance could limit homeowners’ future development plans by restricting future renovations and development rights allowed on the property. It could also increase general repair and building costs by stipulating that materials that match those originally used must be included in renovation projects versus new materials, he said.

Hook said the ordinance originated from the council’s goals to preserve and promote the city’s downtown and is an important economic strategy.

“Historic preservation is an economic stimulus,” he said. “One of the draws for people to the city is that we have a unique, charming downtown, and this ordinance is our way of keeping that economic edge.”

The city can also benefit from the ordinance by qualifying for certified local government status through the state Office of Historic Resources — making the city eligible for grant funding to manage its historic resources.

But Hoyt said the ordinance singles out people with homes in historic zones and people with houses designated as historical resources.

“What they are requiring of us could never be required of other homeowners in the city,” Hoyt said. “The city shouldn’t be able to impose an unreasonable burden on people that happen to own these historic homes.”

Kim Murry, the city’s deputy director of long-range planning, said owning a historic home also has benefits such as qualifying for property tax breaks through the Mills Act. The measure offers economic incentives for the preservation of residential neighborhoods and revitalization of downtown commercial districts.

“In terms of burden, if a person is just living and maintaining their home, they would be doing whatever they were doing to maintain it anyways,” Murry said. “The difference is that there is a higher level of scrutiny when bigger changes to the property are proposed.” The council is expected to consider the draft ordinance this summer with possible adoption in the fall.

Reach AnnMarie Cornejo at 781-7939.