Homeowner Battles City Over Gardens

These Sweetser House Gardens are at the center of dispute. Photo: Dennis Sullivan

These Sweetser House Gardens are at the center of dispute.
Photo: Dennis Sullivan

One of Redondo’s most valuable historic assets, the Sweetser house at the corner of Beryl and PCH, has been in the news quite a bit recently. The new owner, Scott Leonard, wants to make some changes to the landscape, for which he submitted plans to the Preservation Commission. The plans call for some new hardscape to allow for ADA compliance plus the addition of a walkway and formal garden with a fountain on the existing lawn. This would require removal or significant alterations to the existing gardens and, to some, would dramatically affect the property’s historic character. The Commission indicated that they would be willing to grant approval on most of the changes but that they would need to be scaled back a bit and be more sensitive to the property’s historic aspects.

While the Commission says they are basing their decisions on national preservation guidelines, the owner feels that the Commission is being too restrictive and is planning to take the matter to the City Council. The new owner maintains that his plans fall within the recommended preservation guidelines and feels a denial to approve his plans will leave him with no other option other than to sell the property to developers who would most certainly demolish the existing buildings.

The City Council has sent the matter back to the Preservation Commission for further work to reach a compromise.

Here are some comments of varying opinions on this matter including viewpoints from the property owner and the City of Redondo Beach.
Save The Gardens

Teresa Gianos
Redondo Beach Planning Department 

The landscaping on the Sweetser House site is considered as contributing to the historic character of the site. Although it may look worn, the overall layout, fabric, organization of spaces, etc. are important. This site is on the National Register of Historic Places, is Local Landmark #2, and was often discussed as significant because of its gardens. There is precedence for saving the garden, with multiple decisions by various commissions and councils.

The zoning ordinance has a historic variance procedure that was specifically created for the Sweetser House. It has since been used to preserve other properties, but the initial reason for adoption of that provision was to save the gardens by reducing parking requirements. Staff encouraged the applicant to get further advice on understanding historic standards, by offering a list of historic preservation consultants. We also directed Mr. Leonard to several websites that explain and give examples for implementing the standards. (look at the sections on Rehabilitation and “site”)

Standards For Rehabilitation
National Park Service
The Preservation Commission, in making their decision, did not feel the landscape plan would retain the essential elements that make the resource significant. The proposed landscape plan does not meet historic standards and the commission was not able to make the findings required by the code, and environmental review. The Commission did endorse an acceptable alternative, and gave staff the authority to work with the applicant on meeting the ADA needs, balanced with the historic preservation needs. The Council can:

– Deny the appeal of the applicant, and affirm the Commission’s decision

– Review the Initial Environmental Study and adopt the mitigation proposed

– Ask for further revisions/alternatives to the plan

– Ask for an EIR to be prepared, given significant impacts
Grant the appeal and approve the project without conditions
Editor’s Note: Landmark de-listing would be a difficult procedure. The city would need to find that no alternatives to demolition exist and that new projects would outweigh the loss. The owner would need a certificate of appropriateness to demolish, along with an EIR.

Breaking the Mills Act contract would result in a significant financial impact. At 12.5% of the appraised value, the penalty could reach $250,000 plus the loss of an annual tax relief of around $13,000.
Its My Backyard

Scott Leonard
Sweetser House Owner   

First, I suggest that everyone who feels they have a say in what I do in the private, non visible from public access part of my property, read the Redondo Beach rules. Bottom line, the preservation aspects do not apply to what is not visible from a public right of way. What we want to do is not. Plus, all the rules are written to apply to buildings and a literal application to landscape is not appropriate. (RB Staff has said otherwise. This is troublesome. See comments below.) Second, I suggest everyone read the Interior’s Standard that are quoted by staff.
Some issues: First there are four standards. RB staff decided to apply the most stringent. The following which comes directly from The Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties. “How to Use the Standards and Guidelines. The Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties with Guidelines for Preserving, Rehabilitating, Restoring and Reconstructing Historic Buildings are intended to provide guidance to historic building owners and building managers, preservation consultants, architects, contractors, and project reviewers prior to treatment. As noted, while the treatment Standards are designed to be applied to all historic resource types included in the National Register of Historic Places—buildings, sites, structures, districts, and objects—the Guidelines apply to specific resource types; in this case, buildings.”

RB is applying the guidelines to landscaping, which is a problem. Also, the standards are not legal. They are recommendations. They carry no weight in what a resident can do or not. Staff suggested otherwise. It is the city that sets the rules. Lastly, while the city can try to stop us from adding to the property buildings that are viewable from the public right of way, it has little true power. The worst that the city can do to us is revoke our Mills Act. Which would cost us over $100,000 in fines. However, the way a Mills Act is revoked by the city is to determine that the property owner has changed the property such that it is no longer historic. So by revoking the Mills Act, the city also revokes any control of the property from a historical perspective. Thus allowing full development of the site.

My final comment, is the city staff has misrepresented to the Preservation Committee what the rights of the city and property owners are with respect to the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards and Redondo Beach rules. However, don’t take my word for it, read their’s.

Direct Quote from Teresa (Gianos) in an email: “1. The Commission has to make findings to approve any changes to historic sites.” Notice how she said “any changes.”
Direct Quote from RB: 10-4.401 “Actions requiring certificate of appropriateness. (a) For landmarks or properties within an historic district, no person shall alter, restore, demolish, remove, or relocate any exterior improvement or architectural feature visible from any public right-of-way; or alter, restore, place, erect, remove, or relocate any permanent sign visible from a public right-of-way without being granted a certificate of appropriateness, except as provided under Article 6 of this chapter. Approval of such work shall be required even if no other permits or entitlements are required by the City.”
This is mainly meant to deal with buildings, not landscape, but regardless, it is very apparent that the committee has no right to tell me what I can and can not do in my back yard, which will sit behind a fence they have already approved.

Save The Gardens

Dean Francois
RBHS Board Member and Former Preservation Commissioner  

As a Redondo Beach Preservation Commissioner in the 90’s, I recall working with then Councilman Kevin Sullivan to ensure that the Sweetser House found a buyer. The historic landmark was sitting vacant while real estate agents sat around not doing their job selling it. Had it gone unchecked, it could have easily fallen into the hands of developers leading to possible demolition.

Instead, a willful buyer stepped up to the plate. The house seemed to be a prime example of “adaptive reuse” as a chiropractic office. But sure enough, bold development proposals from the new owner came before our Preservation Commission that could have changed the landscape of the property forever. The owner wanted to demolish the adjacent “servant’s quarters” on Gertruda Street and completely reconfigure the garden adding a new café. Since the servant’s house was not a registered landmark, his handlers worked at convincing us it was an insignificant structure. We worked hard at a compromise using the threat of costly environmental (CEQA) reviews if he wanted to pursue his plan. We reached an agreed upon plan and saved that house and the gardens. That was then.

Construction never began on that plan. The Sweetser house was again sold. This past August, the commission approved a development plan from the new owner.

It now turns out the owner’s latest landscape plan is not even consistent with what was approved. He now wants to reconfigure the garden. This impacts the historic features of the landmark. The commission has stood by their earlier approval and denied him the changes he has demanded. He will appeal to the city council on February 3rd. Considering the history of approvals on that property, certainly he knew what he was up against when he bought that house.

I urge everyone to provide your input, support your Preservation Commission and participate in stopping this proposal by urging the City Council to deny his appeal. Write, fax, or email to your city councilman.

The Sweetser House at Beryl and PCHPhoto: Krista Hayes

The Sweetser House at Beryl and PCH
Photo: Krista Hayes