Historic neighborhoods at risk in San Luis Obispo

November 4, 2010

OPINION By PEG PINARD

When the onerous $10,000 per infraction and up to $5,000 a day for 30 days fines were removed from the proposed San Luis Obispo historic ordinance, it may have been tempting to think that was the end of the horrendous impact this ordinance would have on historic neighborhoods.

Not so, as part of this ordinance and guidelines, the city intends to grant itself the power to:

(Ch.4.1.3.b) “Re-establishment of the property’s historic use…provided the Director determines such uses are compatible with adjacent uses.” and

(c) “Any other uses which is determined to be compatible with its surroundings and…”

Basically, this new power for the city planning director and the Cultural Heritage Committee will undo the protections that our current zoning laws provide. Right now, people who have moved into what they thought was a residential neighborhood have the reasonable expectation that it will remain so. This new provision will undo that.

As background for this issue let me briefly explain why the Old Town Neighborhood Association was created and why some of these issues were so controversial then…and are now being resurrected in the guise of “incentives” by those who seem to have no idea what it takes to maintain a ‘neighborhood’, much less really care about historic preservation.

About 30 years ago, the Old Town area was being subjected to a number of requests to turn homes in the residential neighborhoods into offices. Many of us were young and knew very little about the effects of zoning. We liked our homes, could exchange our energy as labor to fix them up, liked being near downtown and thought this would be a good place to raise our children.

The idea that ‘the house next door’ could become a vacant building at night, weekends and holidays was not something we had even considered when we moved into this neighborhood.  We began to realize that the security of our neighborhood would be compromised if we had the turnovers of strangers, and the traffic and parking impact of their cars, constantly throughout the day. Faced with applications for the conversion of what were currently lived-in homes, we had a big wake-up call.

After having to speak against multiple requests for these ‘office conversions’ we finally organized and confronted the city with being honest with residents about what did the city want for this area. The city said it liked having the historic homes but then was doing everything to make it difficult to live here. For instance, there was a huge ‘right-of-way’ on Broad St. that was never disclosed to residents who bought on that street, residents couldn’t plant trees in front of their own homes, and there were pressures on the city council from those who said this area would be better off as offices.

Many of us had put everything we had into purchasing our homes and this was a complete shock to us. Besides the ability to live in our own homes, there was an even greater community benefit to having this area remain residential. The history of “downtowns” in California gave a very clear picture that, where downtowns lost their surrounding residential areas, those downtowns eventually deteriorated.

It was just a matter of time before the absence of neighbors walking around, the absence of people who could hear if there was a cry for help, and just the high transiency of the area made it feel unsafe. People didn’t go through a ‘no man’s land’ for dinner, theater and other downtown uses – especially at night. This pattern was documented over and over again.

In bringing this to the attention of downtown business leaders, we were able to work together to come up with an effective and reasonable plan that met both of our needs. A few blocks were designated for office expansion, and the rest were to be kept sacrosanct! No more intrusions! No more constant threats to change what could happen next door.

Residents could buy homes in Old Town, fix them up, and feel secure that this would remain a nice residential area in which to live. They would not have to feel in constant jeopardy that, if they missed a city ‘notice’ or couldn’t drop what they were doing to go down and protest, that they would end up without neighbors.

Now that you know the background, perhaps you can appreciate the absolute irresponsibility of the city proposing to leave “allowable uses” in the hands of a planning director.  This undoes everything we worked for, thought we had accomplished, both for the security of the residents of this city and for the betterment of the town as a whole. Every ‘exception’ that is made (no matter how many justifications are made to allow it) becomes the basis for the next exception.

It is beyond comprehension how any planner could think that introducing such ‘exceptions’ to the zoning laws of a neighborhood would add to the quality of life for residents.  In an area that is already fragile due to a very high number of non-owner occupied homes, anything that would take away the remaining sense of stability, will be what finally turns the tide of ‘livability’. Families will just keep moving out, as many (over approximately 60 percent) already have.

Some of the ‘old uses’ that have been in our neighborhood include: fraternities, a sanitarium, a maternity hospital, a general hospital, doctor’s offices, machine shops, hair salons, and even a house of ill-repute…and that’s just in a couple of blocks. I’m sure other blocks have even more uses that they can add.

It’s a ‘life lesson’ that many of us have learned… if you take things for granted, and don’t protect them, that, eventually you will lose them. We’ve done well with the existing zoning protections and have even flourished.

But these city provisions to, basically, put residents and homeowners under constant threat again, will undo all that. And, if that happens, no ordinance will be able to buy back the good will and pride that the city currently experiences from historic (district) homeowners.

Peg Pinard is a former county supervisor and mayor of San Luis Obispo.


15 Comments

  1. whatdouno says:

    sounds more like property rights of tax paying property owners are at risk.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  2. LensCleaner says:

    Whats with this Lichtig?

    http://www.malibutimes.com/articles/2005/12/15/news/news2.txt

    “Lichtig’s tenure has been marked by constant staff turnover, although this has been a problem for Malibu even before she began working for the city. Since Lichtig arrived, the city has gone through four planning directors/managers and two interim planning managers. Numerous city planners have come and gone, with many only staying for a few months.”
    ______________________________________________________________________
    or better yet this?

    http://www.malibutimes.com/articles/2006/03/31/news/news4.prt

    Additionally, the issue of city staff turnover was discussed at the forum. Malibu has had a high rate of staff turnover, including a large number of department heads in its short history.

    Mazza blamed the problem on poor leadership. Although he did not mention her name, he alluded to Katie Lichtig, who left her post as city manager in January, as being a poor leader. He said the city needs to be sure to hire an excellent city manager when it selects a permanent replacement for Lichtig.
    ———————————————————————————————————-
    Didn’t the City vet this woman before shoving a ton of money into her wallet?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 1

  3. Paperboys says:

    House of ill repute? Where? Does she really think that a whore house could once again be established in town? Or anywhere in this state for that matter?
    And don’t forget, a planning director or planning staff never has the last say on anything. Literally everything decided by staff is appealable to the panning commission and/or the city council.
    She is right though, it takes the residents in a neighborhood to be vigilant in order not to be railroaded.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 2

  4. mkaney says:

    Well this just shows Peg is still clueless. The “sanitarium” which she refers to is in fact, a bed and breakfast which goes by the name “The Sanitarium.” Really…what this is about is property rights, which she has basically ZERO respect for. So I find it ironic that she would be concerned that the process could be ripe for abuse.

    Anyway, just the mere fact that she confuses a bed and breakfast for a mental asylum pretty much just explains everything.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 13 Thumb down 4

    • NuttyBuddy says:

      She’s talking about the clause allowing properties to revert to past uses, mkaney. She’s not saying it’s currently a sanitarium. Might wanna read more carefully.

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 3

      • mkaney says:

        Fair enough. So which building is she talking about? I certainly hope she’s not including the Sunny Acres Sanitarium up on the hill. And what relevance is there in the fact that one building was used as a house of ill repute, considering prostitution is illegal.

        It strikes me as GREAT irony that she is concerned that allowable uses would include historical uses, when what she is arguing for is the ability to preserve the historical nature of “Old Town.”

        Let me translate this whole piece for ya, “I own one of these houses and I want to maximize my property value. History is really not my concern, unless I can pick and choose the parts that benefit ME”

        Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 4

        • NuttyBuddy says:

          I would like to think that when someone purchases a home with residential zoning in a residential neighborhood, there would be some guarantee that it would remain that way. And, if for some reason changes were necessary, I’d like to think it would be for a really good reason and after much research and deliberation at a higher level.

          I’m very surprised these guidelines would leave it to the discretion of the Planning Director to make decisions which could override current zoning. I’m sure you remember all our city went through to create and adopt the General Plan. Should these guidelines be allowed to do an end-run like that?

          And, more importantly, if it’s allowed in this document, where else could it happen?

          Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 1

        • mkaney says:

          I understand your point, but unfortunately she doesn’t present a straightforward case with all the factual details, she simply talks in general about a meeting between residents and city officials, and then uses a bunch of vague arguments, none of which address any specific facts, ordinances, specific zoning decisions, etc. etc. etc. Perhaps there are a lot of houses which people own but cannot afford to fix up, because of all kinds of other city restrictions, therefore it makes more sense to allow businesses in them which may be able to afford the required renovations, earthquake retrofits, and what not.

          If she came out and in a straightforward manner said she’s concerned about her property value, that would be one thing. Or if she didn’t have a history of subjecting property owners to all sorts of expensive requiredments, that also might help. But the point is that she is using an argument which claims concern for all these issues other than her own, while failing to provide any specific factual information or be honest about the fact that there may be a myriad of issues leading to this decision.

          Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 2

        • Al says:

          “The Sanitarium”, B&B, actually was a Sanitarium.

          Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 1

        • MAD HATTER says:

          Fair enough. So which building is she talking about? I certainly hope she’s not including the Sunny Acres Sanitarium up on the hill.” Your thinking of the wrong place. That used to be a juvenal hall a long time ago. The building down the road was the Sanitarium.

          Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  5. slocorruptionhater says:

    I read this opinion with great interest as I was never much of a fan of Peg’s policies and ideas while she was on the City Council. Moreover, she owns a lovely Victorian home on Broad St. so I thought that it would be more a self-serving essay than anything. And, while it is obvious that she is interested in this ordinance because it affects her personally, I must admit that I could not be more in agreement with her opinion. To allow the planning director to have discretion over what may or may not be a historic use is a recipe for abuse of power. I am in favor of protecting historical heritage, and while Peg might be a bit of an alarmist with some of the historical uses she states might be re-introduced in our downtown residential historical neighborhoods (“a sanitarium, a maternity hospital, a general hospital… machine shops”), I don’t see how re-introducing incompatible land uses does anything to enhance our historical neighborhoods. Thanks for alerting us to this proposed ordinance.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 3

  6. SLOBIRD says:

    Talking about Lichtig, did you see her prior City tried to pass a ballot measure where they wanted to tax each and every business between $250-$500 for their Chamber as membership has declined and they need money to promote tourism and more business.. Be prepared/warned as I’m sure new ideas are coming our way from the City slicker!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 1

  7. SLOBIRD says:

    We must preserve what little is left of our little “historic” original City. Big business (and the Copelands – also natives but greedy) have destroyed the charm of our downtown, leave our neighbors alone. Go out to Madonna/Los Osos and do whatever you want as it looks like every City commerical money sucking City.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 3

  8. TacomaRose says:

    Excellant opinion piece ….. are you listening Lichtig et. all?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 15 Thumb down 4

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