Pleasanton: Commission supports new penalties to protect historic buildings

Inspired by unpermitted Second Street demolition, city rules would include stiff fine, site restrictions

The demolition of an historic house at this property on Second Street, without proper city permits, in the summer led to city officials drafting a new resolution to create penalties for unauthorized demolition or alterations of historic buildings. (Photo by Jeremy Walsh)

The city is close to confirming new regulations to create strict penalties for unauthorized demolition or alterations of buildings designated as historic in Pleasanton.

In the wake of a historic house on Second Street being torn down without a proper permit this summer, city staff discovered the Pleasanton Municipal Code had no specific penalties related to unpermitted work on historic structures, so they set out to draft rules to address that short-coming.

The Planning Commission earlier this month gave unanimous support to those proposed regulations, which include a maximum possible fine that could go beyond $1 million and restrictions on future site redevelopment for up to 20 years -- depending on the extent of the unauthorized work.

"We want to put a process in place that is punitive and that deters bad behavior," Commission Chair Nancy Allen said during the Nov. 13 meeting. "We want to make sure it doesn't happen, and we want people that would do it being penalized because we want to protect these historic resources."

Expected to be presented to the City Council for consideration in the weeks ahead, the proposed regulations were drafted in the aftermath of the complete demolition of an 89-year-old house that was listed on the city's 2015 historic resource survey.

The owners of the single-story house at 4371 Second St. had been given city clearance for renovation plans that included removing and remodeling only the back part of the home, but city officials said the Planning Division had never authorized the building to be fully demolished -- but that's exactly what occurred after contractors discovered severe foundation problems.

The consultant approached the Building Division with a request for changes to the footings -- which was approved -- but they did not call out to building officials that their changes would result in tearing down the whole house, nor did they seek approval from the Planning Division for the full demolition, as is protocol, according to assistant city manager Brian Dolan.

"We found out that we didn't have any recourse really in our existing code (for penalties)," Dolan told the commission. "It was very frustrating to not have a way to deal with it when it did happen, and I'm sorry to say we're probably more susceptible to it now that people found out that nothing happened to them."

The proposed code amendment centers around stiff fines and restrictions for property owners who demolish an historic building, partially or fully, without written city approval or who make alterations to the building without proper permits.

The maximum fine would be based on the replacement value or the appraised value -- whichever amount is greater -- of the affected part of the building, before demolition or alteration, as determined by a licensed appraiser selected by the city. Staff recommended using only the appraised value, but planning commissioners supported adding the replacement value alternative for the highest possible maximum fine.

The other key penalty would be restrictions on future redevelopment at a site found in violation, meaning the owner could not reconstruct with a new building that exceeds the square footage, floor-area ratio, height or placement onsite as the demolished original structure for 20 years.

In practice, the ultimate fine amount in each case would be determined by the city's community development director, based on the range from $0 up to the maximum. The 20-year redevelopment restrictions could only be lifted with project approval by the City Council.

The commission also added a provision to clarify that the replacement structure should be the same architectural style or another approved historical style as the illegally demolished building.

The Pleasanton Heritage Association seemed supportive of the draft resolution as amended by the commissioners in their 5-0 vote on Nov. 13.

The proposed regulations are scheduled to head to the council during one of its December meetings, according to City Manager Nelson Fialho.

Meanwhile, with no recourse to impose additional penalties because of the gap in existing city law, the code enforcement case for the Second Street house resolved in mid-September, with city officials lifting the halt-work order they posted July 1 and allowing the project to proceed.

"Staff has concluded that the best path forward in this particular case is to allow the Hodnefields to complete the reconstruction of the home as previously approved, as this is the best way to restore the historic character of the property and the neighborhood," Dolan wrote in a city memo on Sept. 17.

Property owners Jerry and Sherri Hodnefield sent an apology letter to the city on Sept. 16, acknowledging the error, expressing regret for what occurred and noting they recently made a $5,000 donation to the Jean Jones Endowment Fund to support Museum on Main historic preservation efforts.

"We would like to offer our apologies for the misunderstanding at 4371 2nd Street. We began the process with the best intention of remodeling our home and preserving the historic integrity of the house as we have done with previous projects in Pleasanton," the Hodnefields wrote, in part.

"We mistakenly believed we had the necessary approvals to move forward with construction. Unfortunately, this resulted in the facade of the house being taken down. We regret this error," they added. "We believe that historic preservation is vital to the character of the neighborhood and the City of Pleasanton."

Work has picked up at the Second Street house in recent weeks. New framing has been built, among other new construction visible from the street since the red-tags were removed.

Jim Morgenroth of Pleasanton-based Morgenroth Development, the general contractor on the project, also acknowledged an error, telling the Weekly he made "the wrong choice" in not going directly to the city's Planning Division even though the house was in such bad shape "it would've come down anyway."

The firm is committed to rebuilding the Craftsman-style house so the new facade exudes the same characteristics as the original, according to Morgenroth.

"Everybody will go by (and say), 'Wow, the house looks great; can't even tell it was worked on,'" he said.

Morgenroth also addressed why his firm turned down an unrelated contract with the city for construction services last month, saying he made the decision for availability reasons and not because of public criticism made by two City Council members in the aftermath of the Second Street situation.

The council had approved renewing an as-needed contract with Morgenroth worth a maximum of $400,000 for 2019-20 in a 3-2 vote on Oct. 1. Vice Mayor Karla Brown and Councilwoman Julie Testa objected to re-signing with Morgenroth because of the firm's role in the unpermitted demolition.

Morgenroth said he was surprised and hurt by the public criticism, adding "so many of the comments weren't true," but he reiterated that they were not the reason he turned down the city contract after the council's approval.

He said recent family obligations, as well as his continued recovery from a serious injury, are impacting his professional availability so he felt that he and the firm could not handle the additional workload -- "I couldn't do the good job that I expected."

Morgenroth was also confused why the contract renewal even went to the council on Oct. 1, saying he had already indicated to city staff that the firm "wouldn't be a good candidate for that work."

City staff found a new contractor, and the council on Oct. 15 confirmed an agreement with Ella Construction worth up to $500,000 for on-call work and scheduled renovations, including the remodeling underway now at the city's Human Resources Department.

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2 people like this
Posted by Shannon
a resident of Stoneridge Orchards
on Nov 26, 2019 at 2:28 pm

So sad this happened to this house. You cannot recreate history

7 people like this
Posted by skynet
a resident of Mission Park
on Nov 26, 2019 at 7:19 pm

skynet is a registered user.

Property rights are over rated.

3 people like this
Posted by Fifty Years Here
a resident of Pleasanton Heights
on Nov 27, 2019 at 8:57 am

Fifty Years Here is a registered user.

It's long been known in town, that "it's better to ask for forgiveness than ask for permission." Their policies and attitudes are so restrictive that people just do what they want to do, and the city never goes back and makes them remove structures, repaint buildings, or replace trees.

12 people like this
Posted by been there
a resident of Del Prado
on Nov 27, 2019 at 10:39 am

been there is a registered user.

I applaud anyone who owns a really old house for having the stamina and really deep pockets to take on and maintain such a monumental project. With the seismic and life-safety codes, including fire protection being as strict as they are currently, there will be very few people who can afford to buy and maintain any historic house/structure.

With new punitive rules in place, the existing historic houses will likely fall into disrepair and become devalued as time goes on, if feasible and affordable renovations are not allowed. So many times when the old building is "opened up" and the foundation and core structure is revealed, the owner has few options other than remove and replace in order to meet current codes and standards. Let's be sure we have our priorities straight before punitive measures are made an ordinance.

26 people like this
Posted by Ian
a resident of Hacienda Gardens
on Nov 27, 2019 at 2:36 pm

This is silly. Buildings exist to serve people, not the other way around. Let owners do what they want with the property they worked hard to pay for. If the city or any group of busybodies is so interested in preserving history, let them buy a historic home and maintain it.

5 people like this
Posted by been there
a resident of Another Pleasanton neighborhood
on Nov 28, 2019 at 12:58 pm

Let me tell you that the the Planning Commission is beyond ignorant. Try and build a state of the art green house and you'll go broke trying to get the building permits approved. I know. They want old moldy falling down houses with space to tie a horse in front to bring back the good old days of horse drawn excrement in the streets. Appallingly ignorant people who have the power to destroy you, that's the building department. Do yourself a favor and build somewhere else, or build the house they want you to build. Because you will NEVER be able to build the house you want to build in pleasanton. My experience with these people was beyond insulting.

4 people like this
Posted by Grumpy
a resident of Vineyard Avenue
on Nov 28, 2019 at 4:08 pm

Grumpy is a registered user.

Nothing in this town is going to become devalued over time. That’s fantasy.

Historic preservation rules exist for a reason. You may not agree with the reason. You may think the people who enforce the rules are no good at it. You may find the whole thing draconian. Nevertheless, the rules exist and there are people lining up to move into those districts and play by those rules.

And if they are going to create rules, they have to enforce them. It’s worse to have rules that are not fully enforced than no rules at all.

4 people like this
Posted by Fifty Years Here
a resident of Pleasanton Heights
on Nov 30, 2019 at 8:45 am

Fifty Years Here is a registered user.

Grumpy... Ridiculous rules are hard to enforce and they are hard to convince people to follow. It's like the Seinfeld episode at the rental car counter, "You're good at taking the reservation, just not HOLDING the reservation... And isn't the HOLDING the most important part?"
I had a tree issue several years ago. I followed all their rules, hired and arborist, the most reputable tree company and barely got to trim the things up. It cost me thousands and I got very little from the entire effort. Two years later my neighbor chopped the damned things down and got fined $1,800, which to date he's never paid.
Rules need to make sense and they need to be enforced, hard to do one without the other.

5 people like this
Posted by James Michael
a resident of Val Vista
on Dec 1, 2019 at 1:33 pm

James Michael is a registered user.

Trees are magical in Pleasanton. The city makes it hard to trim or remove them, but when the roots destroy the sidewalks or roadways then the city has no money for the least in my neighborhood or on West Las Positas.

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