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Prop A Backers, Opponents Square Off

By Jorge Casuso

Feb. 27 -- Are developers really behind Prop A? Why is the City holding its first mail ballot election on an issue that directly affects only a small segment of the population? And does landmarking really boost property values?

Those were some of the questions posed to two homeowners and two preservationists who faced off Thursday night in a spirited debate over a ballot measure that would require the go-ahead from an owner before a single family home can be designated a landmark or included in a historic district.

Not surprisingly, both sides agreed on almost nothing during the hour-long debate sponsored by CityTV, in cooperation with the League of Women Voters, to help inform Santa Monicans about a measure that already is being decided not in the ballot box but by mail.

(The City Clerk said Wednesday afternoon that her office had received more than 2,000 ballots. Ballots will be taken until 9 p.m. March 21)

The "Homeowners Freedom of Choice Initiative" is "very, very simple" and "fair," homeowner Greg Poirier said in his opening remarks.

"The issue here is freedom, our freedom of choice with what we do with our property," proponent Leah Mendelsohn said in her concluding statement. "We want to have control over our property. Freedom to do what is right."

"We cherish landmarks," Landmarks Commission chair Ruthann Lehrer said in her concluding remarks. "If an architectural treasure is threatened, the community should be able to step in."

Prop A, said preservationist Bea Nemlaha, is "undemocratic, arbitrary and unfair." A homeowner within a proposed historic district "can veto for any reason. That is arbitrary."

Much of the debate would center on that key provision. Opponents of the measure argued that districts would be lost because of one recalcitrant homeowner, while supporters said the district could always exclude the dissenter.

"A historic district does not have to include every house on the street," Porier said. "You can have a district. You just can't include my home in it."

"You can't pluck houses out," Lehrer said later in the debate.

"You can gigger the boundaries to get what you want," Porier countered.

The two sides also disagreed on the impact landmark designation has on property values. Nemlaha cited conservancy studies and logic (A Picasso or Pollock painting is valuable because there is a limited number.)

"Property values in historic districts rise faster than adjacent properties," Nemlaha said. "There is a market for those homes, and people are willing to pay a premium."

But Mendelsohn, a former real estate agent, didn't buy the argument, countering that Santa Monica property values are rising no mater what.

"Historic districts are mostly in dilapidated neighborhoods where they need to increase the values," Mendelsohn said. "In Santa Monica you don't need to do anything to increase property values. If an owner wants to volunteer (for landmark status) fine."

Opponents of the measure noted that only 16 homes have been designated as landmarks and that the fear that swatches of homes will suddenly be included in a historic district is unfounded.

"Most houses don't meet the rigorous designation," Nemlaha said.

"The formation of a historic district takes a lot of time," Lehrer said. "It's not something that the City does. It's something that requires the partnerships of the homeowners."

The need for the commission to approve demolition of homes that are more than 40 years old is a needed tool for preserving the City's architectural heritage, Lehrer said.

"Landmarks are very carefully selected. Few are chosen," Lehrer said. "If Prop A passes a developer or owner can get a demolition permit."

Lehrer noted that the only home in North America designed by renown Brazilian architect Oscar Neimeyer (who was responsible for Brasilia and other monuments of 20th century architecture) would have been demolished under the proposed ordinance.

Fortunately the owner had to come before the commission for a demolition permit, delaying the wrecking ball and sparing the historic home.

"It gives us more negotiating leverage," Lehrer said. "To start a dialogue and to have some negotiation, you have to have some leverage."

To which Mendelsohn countered: "We have no negotiating leverage if we don't have consent."

Prop A, Porier said, would "force the Landmarks Commission to be proactive" in searching for landmarks like the Neimeyer home, which the owner sold for a profit after realizing its value instead of tearing it down.

The house could have been designated a long time ago, Porier said

To which Nemlaha countered: "You've got seven volunteers (on the Landmarks Commission) who aren't paid covering the entire city."

Proponents of the homeowners initiative denied allegations that they were bankrolled by developers, noting that here was no incentive to donate since every demolition permit applied for last year was granted.

"It is not backed by developers," Porier said. "Developers don't have very much to gain"

"I can tell you we don't have developer money," said Mendelsohn, who is the campaign's treasurer. "We're getting money from homeowners, and we're scrambling for money."

Asked to name the developers behind the measure Nemlaha mentioned Marc Schrobilgen. (Schrobilgen, whose predicament became a rallying cry for the movement when he was refused a demolition permit after purchasing his home because it was a landmark nominee, has donated $7,750 according the latest campaign finance disclosure statement.)

Nemlaha said that Schrobilgen had identified himself on an early campaign statement as a developer, but now is listing himself as a music video producer.

Porier and Mendelsohn said that Schrobilgen, who is their neighbor, has only built two houses, hardly what you would consider "a developer," a term they said is charged with negative connotations in Santa Monica.

The logistics of the election also were debated. Opponents of the initiative charged that the City had been forced into an expensive special election, while backers countered that the City Council could have avoided the expense by adopting the measure.

"The City wasn't forced into anything," Porier said. "If it had been 13,000 renters" who submitted signatures to place the measure on the ballot, the City Council "would have adopted it."

Nemlaha questioned the need for a costly special election, which requires more qualifying signatures, arguing that proponents "wanted a special election because of the lower turnout."

Mendelsohn disagreed. "We wanted it sooner. We wanted to continue on the momentum we had started. We didn't want a mail in ballot."

The council and preservationists, Mendelsohn said, backed a mail in ballot - which had never been used in the city - in order to boost voter turnout and hurt the initiative's chances.

"Why were you so concerned about voter participation?" she said.

"I think a mail in ballot is a super idea," said Nemlaha. "It gives them (voters) a lot of time to think about it."
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