Score one for proponents of property rights and at the same time mark a loss in the columns of historical preservation and the City of San Diego.
On Wednesday, January 27, a California appellate court ruled in favor of Frank and Mina Bottinis’ decision to tear down a potentially historic beach cottage in La Jolla built by famed San Diego architect Irving Gill to make room for a new single-family home without conducting any environmental review.
The decision comes after years of litigation and years after the Bottinis demolished the so-called Windemere Cottage they purchased in January 2011.
In order to understand the ruling, one must revisit the history of what is said to have been Irving Gill's primary residence and the first Craftsman home in the country.
Gill and Joseph Falkenhan designed and built the cottage in 1894. The cottage was originally located near La Jolla's business district on Prospect Avenue but had been moved to another property in the following years.
The home's owner previous to the Bottinis was Kristin Taylor, who intended to restore the home to its original condition as well as obtain a historical designation.
In 2011, as the city and Taylor's architect worked on the designation, Taylor opted to sell the property to the Bottinis. As a condition of the sale, the Bottinis were handed the rights to the home's historic nomination. In May of that year the new owners decided against restoring the home and decided to build a new residence on the lot. But in order to proceed with demolition of the cottage, the Bottinis had to withdraw the request for historic nomination. Adamant in their decision, Mina Bottini, an attorney, threatened to sue the professional archaeologist who was hired by Taylor to research and draft a report on Windemere.
But, according to the appellate-court ruling, the request was already too far along. The Bottinis hired attorney Scott Moomjian and Timothy Golba, a La Jolla architect and current chair of the City of San Diego's Planning Commission, to find an alternative. Moomjian and Golba attached an addendum to the original report questioning the structural integrity of Windemere.
Golba’s and Moomjian's report worked, at least long enough to demolish the home. Besides a push to get the home designated a historical structure, the city's Historical Resource Board voted against the designation, citing Windemere's "lack of integrity."
According to the appellate court, Golba then advised the Bottinis that, in order to avoid a lengthy and expensive coastal development permit from the California Coastal Commission, they could claim the home was a public nuisance and demolition was needed for abatement.
In October 2011, the city learned that the Bottinis had already removed portions of the home, before the historical board had made their decision. Meanwhile California's historical preservation office informed the Bottinis that Windemere could potentially be added to the California Register of Historical Resources.
The Bottinis had to act fast. They approached the City of San Diego's Code Compliance Office to ask that the home be considered a public nuisance. City employees visited the home and found that windows and decorative eaves were missing and later gave the couple permission to destroy the home. Demolition began the next day.
The following month, the Bottinis went to the La Jolla Community Planning Association to obtain approval for the new structure. The planning group learned of the demolition and forced them to obtain a coastal development permit, despite the fact that they had already demolished the home.
Soon after, the state Register of Historical Resources board chimed in, stating the Bottinis should have conducted a full environmental review before destroying the home. In a letter, the board blasted the city for allowing demolition to occur.
"The site was noticed for public hearing [by the state’s Office of Historic Preservation], which prompted the owner to quickly demolish it…on the excuse the building was unstable and not fit for habitation. It should be noted that any instability was created by the owner…by directing the removal of the roof brackets, eaves, and other features critical to the stability of the single-wall construction methodology of this rare two-story structure."
Upon learning about the incident, the city council voted to grant the appeals, forcing the Bottinis to obtain the appropriate permits and conduct an environmental review. City councilmember Sherri Lightner called the ordeal a "wanton and calculated destruction of [the] cottage by the current owners."
In response, the Bottinis filed a lawsuit, requesting that the city's appeal be overturned; they also filed a complaint against the city for essentially holding their property hostage during the period.
In December 2014 the court ruled against the city's environmental appeal. The city appealed the decision three months later. On January 27, the appellate court agreed. The complaint of whether the city confiscated the Bottinis property during the course of the city appeals and subsequent litigation can now make its way to trial. The city must also pay for costs associated with the appeal.