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Wednesday, June 27, 2007 | Five years ago, a two-story Craftsman Revival duplex in Janet O’Dea’s Mission Hills neighborhood was torn down, and in its stead, the new owners built a large, modern home that took up nearly the whole lot.

“All of a sudden, it disappeared,” she said. And with its disappearance, O’Dea felt a piece of her neighborhood’s history — and the collective history of San Diego — vanish.

Historocity

  • The Issue: After years of waiting, residents in Mission Hills will wait another month to have their application for a historic district heard.
  • What It Means: City staff and Historical Resources Board members say they want to weigh the application carefully in light of its potential fiscal impact. Under the state-directed Mills Act, the city would trade tax breaks in exchange for homeowners maintaining the historical elements of the houses.
  • The Bigger Picture: Decision makers want to avoid exacerbating the city’s problem by restricting its property tax revenue.

And so O’Dea and her husband started to lobby for a Mission Hills historic district. That would restrict the owners of some of the neighborhood’s Craftsman and Spanish Revival and English Tudor and Modernist homes from stuccoing over unique architecture — or from tearing down homes built in the first few decades of the 20th century. City staff told O’Dea she’d have to do the research themselves if she and her neighbors wanted the Historical Resources Board to consider their request; they were too short-staffed to complete the report themselves. And so O’Dea collected her neighbors’ support and took on the project.

Now, city planners and the board that would grant the historical designation want to make sure all of the application’s Ts are crossed — especially because of its potential fiscal impact. With every home given the historic designation, the city trades a tax break for the homeowner’s commitment to maintain the property. With the city in dire financial straits, some board members say they want to make sure they’re not giving away money without merit. And they want to make sure the affected homeowners know their homes could be protected.

When O’Dea started the arduous application process, she and more than a dozen of her neighbors combined their Google skills and midnight oil to research the history of the individual homes. They found anecdotes, examples of unique architecture and construction methods that are no longer used. They compiled a hefty binder of photos and documentation to show the nearly 60 homes that they feel match the city of San Diego’s criteria for historic designation. Not all of the homes on the three streets — Sunset, Lyndon and Sheridan — fit the designation. Some are labeled as could-be historic, were the homeowners to do some improvements.

The group submitted the report to meet a 2004 deadline, only to have their request tabled for years while the city’s planning department went through staffing reductions and dealt with other plans.

“Contrary to some belief, all of us are working people,” O’Dea said. “These people did this in the hours between softball games with their kids. Either they pitched in with research or they pitched in by money.”

Now, just days before their district was due for a vote from the Historical Resources Board, their request has become mired again. The department told board members Tuesday that it made an error in the way it announced the hearings for the district and has pushed it off for at least another month.

The neighborhood’s request has raised issues that some of the board’s volunteer members, as well as city and county officials, say need addressing. With more than one home at a time applying for historic protection, the fiscal impact of incentivizing such preservation is augmented exponentially. Historic designation gives homeowners a chance to apply for a contract with the city under the state Mills Act, which trades a property tax break in exchange for the homeowner maintaining and preserving the home’s historic character.

That brings benefit to the community at large, proponents of the Mills Act say, in property values and in visitor attraction. O’Dea, who applied with her husband in 2001 for historic designation on their house individually, points to the sightseeing buses that come through her neighborhood already four times daily.

Some board members struggle with their own conscience about the city’s financial situation. Their explicit task is to determine historicity in a site or building. But in these district applications, with a large group of homes applying, they see more dramatically the fiscal impact.

“What’s more important, saving a homeless shelter or saving another Craftsman house?” said Don Harrison, a board member. “[Mills Act incentives] is a policy question we need to grapple with as a city. Perhaps it’s something that is for fatter, not for leaner times.”

Harrison emphasized he hasn’t decided how he’ll vote on the Mission Hills district, or the other nearby Fort Stockton district, before the board next month. But evaluating an area’s historicity in light of the automatic tax break it gives some of the area’s homeowners has become enough of a concern for him that he’s declined to seek reappointment to the all-volunteer board. He’s currently sitting on the board just until the mayor appoints someone to his seat.

“I feel squeamish based on the fiscal impact,” he said, adding that he frets every time he votes for these designations: “Who am I hurting by doing so?”

But the board’s chair, land-use attorney Bob Vacchi, said analyzing the city’s financial situation is figurative miles away from the board’s purview.

“That’s nothing that the board members should be looking at; it’s outside the scope of the decision that we make under the specific set of criteria (for determining historical value),” he said. “But I think it’s an issue that needs to be looked at.”

Betsy McCullough, deputy director of the city’s Planning Department, said the board’s chief concern should not be evaluating the fiscal impact of their historical designations. For the more than 700 so-designated homes and sites in the city, the city’s share of the loss in property tax revenue is about $250,000 annually, she said. That might be enough to fund some of the service workers at the city who expect to be laid off as the mayor implements budget cuts.

“When you look at the amount of property tax lost versus the maintenance of neighborhood value and the positive tourism impacts, its neighborhood character and tourism has benefits that you otherwise can’t buy,” she said.

And Sandy Woodhouse, a supervising appraiser at the County Assessor’s Office, said by the time you whittle the city’s share of the property tax stream, the amount is slight.

“Yes, they need to watch their dollars, but to this level? I don’t think so,” she said.

Bruce Coons with the Save Our Heritage Organisation said he’s seen research showing a vast majority of American tourists visiting cultural, historic sites.

“And what are they looking at in Southern California? They’re looking at the neighborhoods, at the areas that are different than where they came from,” he said. “People are looking for something; they’re looking for roots.”

In the multi-year application process, O’Dea and her neighbors have absorbed countless stories about their neighborhood. They’ve embarked on a forensic journey to figure out how the neighborhood, which became a San Diego subdivision in 1908, has evolved. Cesar Chavez once stayed in one of the homes in the 1970s, they learned. Some of the homes have characteristics they’ve not seen anywhere else, but many of the city’s progressive architects once called the neighborhood home.

“There’s a lot of elements that are not necessarily textbook-style,” she said, pointing to a turret-style lookout jutting from the top of one of the houses near her own on Sunset Street. “But that’s what you’d want to preserve. Perhaps [that home’s] homeowners had a view of Old Town once.”

It’s those stories, the ones that emanate from the homes’ walls or the original-tiled roofs, that give the exasperated O’Dea the strength to persist in light of what she sees as countless bureaucratic obstacles. While sharing her frustrations with the years of waiting, O’Dea is overwhelmed with emotion.

“It’s called the Planning Department,” she said. “I think that you can plan for what’s to come, but you need the perspective of what you have. If you got married somewhere and now it’s a parking lot, that place is gone.”

But McCullough said while the Planning Department has lost about one-third of its staff in recent years, local interest in historic preservation has grown exponentially. That’s put major pressure on the staff time involved in checking applications and processing the historic documentation, she said.

The City Council implemented a Mills Act program in 1995, capping the application fees for homeowners seeking the tax break incentive at $400. The program harkened to a state law passed in 1972 that encouraged historical preservation by reducing homeowners’ property tax bills. The city’s Planning Department said it will soon present a plan to the City Council to increase the application fee to more than $2,000 to offset some of the staffing costs. Some of O’Dea’s wait time might have vanished were the new fees in place to help streamline some of the other applications, city staff said. But McCullough said the proposed fee increase wouldn’t affect the district applications like O’Dea’s, at least not right now.

“People who preserve their houses are doing a great service, helping San Diego hold onto its heritage,” Harrison, the board member, said. “But I would think that many of them may well do it out of pride (without the financial incentive).”

But O’Dea said she just wants the process to be over. In an e-mail Tuesday afternoon to alert her neighbors to the hearing’s postponement, O’Dea quipped, “Waiting for this meeting is like being 10.5 months pregnant!”

“I feel like it’s a no-brainer; life’s too short to be spinning in circles,” she said. “We’re excited to get it done and, honestly, we’re a little skeptical. Really? Is it really going to happen?”

Please contact Kelly Bennett directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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