The lame duck San Luis Obispo City Council approved a reworked new historical home ordinance at its Nov. 8 meeting, capping months of contentious debate over how far the city should go to preserve its old houses.
The council voted 4-1 to approve. Councilman Allen Settle voted against the ordinance.
The ordinance faced more muted opposition than it did in previous incarnations; many of the more draconian aspects were stripped out of the extensive and complex ordinance. With 26 pages of regulations plus 83 pages of guidelines, the ordinance is a daunting read that will strictly regulate the upkeep of hundreds of the city’s houses.
City staffers said the public had plenty of time to digest the latest version of the cumbersome document; most of the final document had been on the city’s website for several weeks, and the 275-page file that explained all the changes was posted a week before the meeting.
The council was debating the meaning of and modifying the language up to the last few minutes before approval.
Settle strenuously disagreed with the ordinance, comparing it to a Rubik’s cube, and said he doubted any of the council members could pass a test on the lengthy document.
“We have to get this right,” said Settle, who suggested the council table it until the ordinance could be thoroughly vetted by the public. “This is a lot like a contract, and both sides should fully understand it, and I don’t think any of us fully understand this.”
Settle suggested it might be wise for anyone who buys an historic home in the future to hire a consultant to interpret the new ordinance. He pointed out that the new language would probably affect the residents of many neighborhoods that would someday be regarded as “historic”—therefore, the council should take more time to examine the long-term effects of what they were going to approve.
The original ordinance language promised heavy fines for owners of historical houses deemed not up to city standards: an initial $10,000 fine and up to $5,000 a day after that. Those huge fines were part of what city staffers said was a necessary effort to protect the city’s 175 designated historic properties and more than 500 older—but not quite as historic—houses from “demolition by neglect.” The early ordinance language also made misdemeanors out of some housing issues. The council excised these sections.
Supporters say the ordinance will help prevent homeowners from letting their houses go to seed and restrict the demolition of historic old houses. It changes how the city defines demolition of a historic home; a 50 percent alteration of a property was regarded as demolition before, though now the standard will be 25 percent. When the ordinance comes into effect, the city will eventually be eligible to receive grants—typically less than $25,000, according to a city staff report—because of its strict guidelines.
The ordinance will come back to the council for a final vote on Pearl Harbor Day, Dec. 7.