The term “historic district” typically conjures images of tree-lined streets, charming homes, and friendly neighbors—not bitter court battles. Yet over the past few years, the Conservancy and other groups have had to enter the legal fray to defend historic districts in the City of Los Angeles (called Historic Preservation Overlay Zones, or HPOZs). Fortunately, preservation has prevailed in the latest round of litigation, keeping the city’s HPOZ program safe—for now.
We’ve all seen how drastic alterations, teardowns, and McMansions can destroy a historic neighborhood’s unique character. Since 1979, the City of Los Angeles’ HPOZ ordinance has offered people a way to manage—not prevent—change in these neighborhoods in a way that balances private property rights with the protection of the qualities that attracted residents in the first place. Los Angeles has twenty-two HPOZs, with more than a dozen more in the works.
Vocal Minority Goes to Court
The success of the HPOZ program has been threatened since 2006, when two separate lawsuits by property-rights advocates sought to overturn HPOZ designations in Windsor Square and Hancock Park. The Hancock Park suit challenged the validity of the city’s HPOZ ordinance, potentially throwing the entire HPOZ system into chaos.
The suits stemmed from the multi-year effort by area residents to secure historic status for the two neighborhoods, which led to the most contentious designation process in the history of the city’s HPOZs.
Though both districts were supported by an overwhelming majority of residents—as well as Councilman Tom LaBonge, the HPOZ Alliance, the Conservancy, and the City Council, who voted unanimously for designation—some anti-HPOZ residents argued that designation would impinge on their rights as homeowners.
Neighbors often have opposing views, yet most people realize over time that the benefits of HPOZ designation—which range from enhanced quality of life to increased property values—far outweigh the effect of increased regulation.
The lawsuits were filed against the city by some residents who opposed the designations. The court set aside the designation for Windsor Square, citing flaws in the historic resource survey and procedural errors in the city’s adoption of the HPOZ. After the city took steps to comply with the court’s order, the City Council re-approved the Windsor Square HPOZ in April 2007. The Hancock Park HPOZ was similarly re-approved by the City Planning Commission and now awaits final City Council action.
New Lawsuit Poses New Threats
In June 2007, a small group of Windsor Square homeowners called the No HPOZ Alliance filed a new lawsuit seeking to overturn the re-designation of the Windsor Square HPOZ. This suit alleged that the city violated the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) by failing to prepare a full environmental impact report to consider potentially significant adverse environmental impacts of HPOZ designation, including “the cumulative impacts of the HPOZ program citywide.”
By focusing on the alleged impacts of all HPOZs—however unsubstantiated and speculative—the lawsuit could have had far-reaching and damaging implications beyond Windsor Square, potentially making it much more difficult and expensive for aspiring HPOZs to complete the process.
HPOZs Bad for the Environment? Hardly
The alliance also argued that HPOZ designation would actually harm the environment by limiting conservation measures such as solar panels. This isn’t true, of course: the city has approved solar panels for Mayor Villaraigosa’s official residence within the HPOZ, as well as other measures for other homes in the district.
Many historic homes also have built-in conservation features, from cross-ventilation to insulating building materials such as lath and plaster, clay tile, and slate roofs. And it’s entirely feasible to increase energy efficiency in historic homes without replacing original doors or windows.
Favorable Ruling Keeps HPOZs on Track
On May 15, Superior Court Judge Ann Jones ruled against the No HPOZ Alliance, upholding the re-designation of the Windsor Square HPOZ and forcefully rejecting claims that HPOZs somehow harm the environment. The court dismissed evidence submitted by petitioners as “baseless speculation” and held that the city “has properly determined that the HPOZ project in Windsor Square is categorically exempt from CEQA.”
The court’s ruling is a major victory not only for Windsor Square, but for historic neighborhoods throughout Los Angeles and the city’s HPOZ program at large.
Communities across the city can continue to seek historic designation without expensive, burdensome, and unnecessary environmental review. So chalk one up for preservation, which is good for the environment in more ways than one.
For more information about Los Angeles' HPOZs, go to http://www.laconservancy.org/initiatives/initiatives_neighborhood.php4.