I am a Cultural Heritage Committee volunteer member, a San Luis Obispo homeowner and a previous zoning enforcement officer with the city of Dublin and with Napa County. I attended the Aug. 26 Historic Preservation Ordinance and Guidelines workshop hosted by the Community Development Department to listen to community concerns.
Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa was the fifth established mission of the 21 Alta-California Spanish missions, built in 1772, and one of the very first European settlements in California. San Luis Obispo city was the 12th city to be incorporated in California (481 incorporated California cities exist today).
The city-placed signs at the entrances to San Luis Obispo read: “Historic San Luis Obispo.” The signs are intended to encourage Highway 101 travelers to visit and experience our heritage and to spend money in our city. Our mission and many of the historic structures and neighborhoods reflect a well-preserved heritage.
San Luis Obispo was never a city of great mansions. It reflects modest, working-class homes providing character and history. It is easier and less expensive to maintain character than it is to create community character. Physical history erased is visual history departed.
Here is an example of a concern that many share: The very first motel in the world, the 1925 Motel Inn, sitting at the east entrance to the city, was allowed through the years to wither away to what little remains today. Within the city, examples of historic structures experiencing willful deterioration can be identified.
Do we, the citizens, condone the few owners who continue the willful neglect of historic properties to the point of demolition for safety’s sake? Do we value our history and unique sense of place created by our historic structures? We, the citizens, need to weigh the facts and then decide to support or discourage the passage of the Historic Preservation Ordinance and Guidelines at the upcoming City Council meeting Tuesday.
The main community concern expressed at the workshop is related to proposed enforcement penalties, which potentially could be significant. Additional city revenue is not the intent of the penalties.
The prime purpose is to preserve officially listed historic resources within the city when a listed building is allowed to significantly deteriorate, possibly willfully, to the point where it becomes a health or safety issue and must be torn down.
Typically, when a violation is brought to the attention of the city, the city provides a written notice to the property, citing the violation along with the specific ordinance section(s) violated and gives 30 days or so for the owner to work with the appropriate department so that eventual corrections can be made. If an owner is verifiably financially stressed, the proposed ordinance has an economic hardship provision.
When an ordinance has only minimal penalties, ignoring the ordinance or paying a minuscule fee can be an insignificant cost of doing business. An example: a property in a northern California city where I did code enforcement had a small truss manufacturing operation on site, as well as considerable junk and people living in junk cars and trucks (with electrical extension cords even running through water puddles).
The owner had ignored code violations going back 37 years. The judge, like previous judges, found the owner in violation, but this judge placed a substantial penalty fine, plus costs. It was at that point that the owner sold the property for nearly $10 million. The property was cleared of violations and junk, and high-end apartments were built on the site. The point is that having the ability to assess a significant fine can be a deterrent to those who would allow historic structures to be demolished by neglect.
At the workshop, one person expressed concerns about the notice given to property owners. Notices of the Historic Preservation Ordinance hearings were all published in The Tribune. In addition, nearly 700 post card notices were mailed to the owners of all historically listed properties for each hearing, and e-mail updates were provided to anyone who expressed interest. Informational fliers were also sent to all owners of historic properties. Truly an effort was made to invite people to participate.
At the workshop, questions were raised as to what standards our historic properties are held. Virtually all government agencies use the Secretary of Interior’s Standards for Historic Rehabilitation.
For anyone interested in reading the standards, the website providing them is http://www.nps.gov/history/hps/tps/tax/rhb/stand.htm.
For preservation, restoration and reconstruction purposes, use the following websites: http://www.nps.gov/history/local-law/arch_stnds_8_2.htm and http://www.parks.ca.gov/pages/1054/files/standards%20chart1.pdf.
Lastly, I want to convey that significant effort and time (more than one year) went into drafting the proposed Historic Preservation Ordinance and Guidelines. Our community development staff performed considerable research and thoughtful word-crafting in drafting the proposed ordinance.
The State Historic Preservation Office, the San Luis Obispo Architectural Review Committee and numerous entities and individuals, including the Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Association, reviewed the proposed ordinance and guidelines and offered comments and suggestions.
The Cultural Heritage Committee conducted numerous meetings to review the draft ordinance and input provided. Changes were made. The best attempts were made to provide our city the best and most fair preservation ordinance possible. Your support of the ordinance before the City Council will be most appreciated.
Buzz Kalkowski is a member of the Cultural Heritage Committee. He has lived in San Luis Obispo since 2003, has a master’s degree in city and regional planning from Cal Poly and is a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners.