COMMUNITY COMMENTARY

Five years ago, the Historic Preservation Advisory Committee threatened the owners of Del Mar’s older homes with an involuntary preservation ordinance that prohibited demolition, curtailed renovation, reduced property values, diminished private-property rights, aggravated health problems, and spurred legal representations.
Only the homeowners’ unflinching resistance and impending legal actions forced City Council to abandon any historic-preservation ordinance. A recent Sandpiper article now advocates resuscitating historic preservation with a voluntary ordinance that probably includes homeowner incentives such as zoning variances and property-tax reductions. These incentives are spurious since the property tax reductions do not completely replace the reduced property values and since the zoning variances prove irrelevant for a preserved structure.
The city’s precarious finances also make property tax reductions unlikely and weaken council support for an incentive-based ordinance. Any effective preservation requires an involuntary ordinance without incentives.
Since zoning changes implement the preservation ordinance and since the courts intervene less frequently in zoning disputes than in other land-use disputes, the involuntary ordinance invites abuse as a vehicle for impeding development.
Simply designating a decrepit beach-bungalow as historic prohibits demolition, eliminates development, and leaves little homeowner recourse. Preservationists may covet the involuntary ordinance more for halting development than for preserving history since Del Mar lacks any significant history. Del Mar’s brief existence includes no monumental event such as Leionidas’ brave stand at Thermopylae. Del Mar’s boundaries include no battle field such as Gettysburg that military tacticians still walk the site, learn the terrain, replay the battle, and study the battle orders.
Some military historians credit the Union victory to an ambiguous order that Lee
issued one of his commanders. Bull Halsey learned this lesson and gave his air commanders explicit orders at the Battle of the Coral Sea: “Hit hard, hit fast, hit often.” Nothing in Del Mar offers any similar epiphany. The escapades of a few drunken starlets seem only prurient. The previous committee seems to admit the historical deficit and to confirm preservation as a ruse for stalling development with such dubious designations as the homes of Del Mar’s third doctor, a woman who dressed as a witch on Halloween, and a Playboy cartoonist. Learning from the previous committee, any new historic preservation committee may initially ignore designating and inventorying the putatively historic homes and concentrate on enacting an apparently benign ordinance.
Since few owners consider their older homes historic, these owners may not feel affected and may not organize any effective opposition.
With an initially voluntary ordinance, the new committee may snare susceptible and naive volunteers.
Then the committee may convince the council to quietly transform the voluntary ordinance into an involuntary ordinance.
Working from a list of recently inventoried properties, the committee may initially designate the older homes of the effete owners and finally designate those of the recalcitrant owners. Although the current City Council manifests little interest in addressing historic preservation, the council responds to community pressure.
The Sandpiper article may be part of a coordinated effort to pressure the council and to measure the opposition.
With little homeowner protest, preservationists may believe they can muscle a preservation ordinance through the council. Since the opposition leaders to the previous ordinance have other interests, each historic homeowner must assume responsibility for his property and express his opposition to the City Council members. If these homeowners remain complacent and allow preservations to enact an historic preservation ordinance, these homeowners deserve the assessment that Eli Wallach gave the Mexican villagers in The Magnificent Seven: “God would not have made them sheep if he didn’t want them sheared.”

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