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Council Sets Special Mail Election for Homeowner Initiative

By Jorge Casuso

Dec. 12 -- For the first time in the City's history, voters will cast their ballots by mail when they decide the fate of a homeowner-backed initiative in a special election called by the City Council Tuesday night.

With the deadline for a final decision looming, the council chose to hold an election early next year instead of adopting the measure, which would strip the City of its power to designate a single-family home as a landmark or include it in a historic district without the owner's permission.

The council also chose not to place a counter initiative on the ballot. Instead it asked staff to incorporate into the existing ordinance the suggestions for a possible measure hammered out by the Landmarks Commission, a process that could take as long as a year.

"I think there's a lot of fear that historic districts will reduce property values," said Councilman Ken Genser, who opposes the measure. "Historic districts raise property values. I have no question in my mind about that. They're tools for neighbors to have good neighborhoods. I think we should put in on the ballot and streamline the landmarks ordinance."

"I think the (homeowner) initiative is overkill," said Mayor Pro Tem Kevin McKeown. "I think we can do a lot better."

Proponents urged the council to adopt the measure -- which qualified for a special election with the signatures of nearly 11,000 voters -- and avoid the cost of holding an election, which will cost taxpayers more than $100,000.

"I'm 100 percent certain it will pass," said Councilman Bob Holbrook, who along with Councilman Herb Katz pushed to adopt the measure. "I don't know why the City Council would want to put the homeowners through" an election.

The council majority, which opposes the measure, hopes the higher turnout spurred by the mail ballot election will lead to the initiative's defeat. Voters -- most of whom are not homeowners with a personal stake in the results -- will have 29 days to mail or deliver their ballots to City Hall by the March 21, 9 a.m. deadline.

While it was expected that the council would call for a special election, it was unclear whether it would put a competing ballot on the measure.

The Landmarks Commission last month began crafting a counter-measure that, among other things, "might clarify the Landmarks process and the Landmarks Commission jurisdiction, expand property owners' participation in the designation process and provide additional incentives to benefit Landmark property owners," according to the staff report.

Although the council accepted the suggestions, staff warned that given the planning department's workload, it could take a year to make the necessary changes to the ordinance. Staff will come back with a list of planning priorities the council can reshuffle.

"There are pieces we can implement a little at a time," Mayor Richard Bloom said after the meeting. "But it won't happen today."

Homeowners -- who had been urging the council to revisit the ordinance since April -- welcomed many of the suggestions, but stuck fast to the initiative's call for an owner's right to decide if a home is designated as a landmark.

"Some of the things the City Council is talking about are very good," said Tom Larmore, a longtime Santa Monica homeowner who authored the initiative. "Making the system smoother and more predictable are good things.

"But that doesn't solve the problem of who ultimately decides whether your home is a landmark," Larmore said after the meeting. "That's the fundamental right we want."

Currently homeowners have no say when the Landmarks Commission designates their homes, although they can testify before the commission and appeal its ruling to the City Council.

Supporters of the "Homeowners Freedon of Choice Initiative" argue that current City law -- which limits renovating and replacing designated homes -- unduly impinges on a homeowner's rights, while giving the Landmarks Commission the "unwarranted' power to impose restrictions, according to a statement filed with the City Clerk in March.

Homeowners also dispute arguments that there are benefits for those whose homes are tapped as landmarks or structures of merit, a designation not as permanent as a landmark designation. "It is the fundamental right of a property owner, not the City, to weigh the benefits and burdens of historic designation," the statement reads.

The movement to stop historic designations got underway a year ago after a homeowner's demolition permit application was put on hold while the Landmarks Commission waited for a survey of homes that could lead to a new historic district North of Montana.

In September, sponsors of the homeowner initiative handed in petitions with more than nearly 13,000, capping a campaign that cost more than $100,000. Homeowners are expected to pump big money into the special election.

"They will easily raise the amount of money necessary to win," Holbrook said.

Genser believes that the signature gathering drive relied on fear and misinformation and that well-informed voters will oppose the measure.

"I think there's a lot of fear out there," he said.
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