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Saturday, November 17 , 2018, 4:38 pm | Fair with Haze 64º

 
 
 
 

Woman’s Dream Home at Stake as Council Takes Up Conejo Landslide Ordinance

In limbo for seven years, Linda Dye hopes to finally be allowed to resume work on Flores Casita

Naturalist Linda Dye’s dream of retiring at her small cabin, nestled in bucolic upper Sycamore Canyon, has endured a seven-year roadblock that will conclude Tuesday.

After stop-work orders, hearings before local and state historic landmark officials, and spending thousands of dollars on a new foundation, Dye is hopeful that her dream will be realized.

On Tuesday, Dye and four other homeowners in the Conejo landslide area will receive the final word from the Santa Barbara City Council on whether amendments to the Conejo Landslide Ordinance will be adopted.

“What they don’t get is, I don’t have any choice,” Dye said. “Everything I have is in that home.”

As a landbird biologist at Channel Islands National Park, Dye said it was important for her to find property that was in a natural environment such as Sycamore Canyon.

“It’s a dream,” she said. “Just waking up and listening to the birds in the morning.”

Unlike Dye, the other Conejo homeowners are looking to rebuild homes that were destroyed during the Tea Fire in November 2008.

In 1984, the City Council adopted the Conejo Landslide Ordinance to prevent further construction in the landslide area, where about eight homes have succumbed to the slide’s movement, according to city staff reports.

The group of homeowners banded together after the Tea Fire to hire Grover-Hollingsworth & Associates, a geotechnical consulting firm from Westlake Village, to scientifically prove that their properties are safe to build on.

Based on recommendations from the consultants and city staff, the City Council will decide whether to adopt a redrawing of the boundaries in the building-prohibitive landslide area. Even with the amendments, however, there still would be several homes destroyed in the Tea Fire that would be ineligible to be rebuilt, chief building official George Estrella said.

The fire didn’t damage Dye’s property, at 1809 Stanwood Drive, but it’s the only building that would be allowed to be reconstructed inside the boundary of the landslide ordinance because it has been recognized as a structure of merit.

Santa Barbara vaquero Leo Flores built Dye’s residence, known as the Flores Casita, for his sister, Barbara, in 1946. Flores worked as a horseman at the Barker Pass ranch owned by businessmen E.W. Alexander and T.P. Dalzell.

The two ranch owners had a prominent role in establishing Old Spanish Days and Los Rancheros Visitadores, traditions that continue to celebrate vaquero life today.

Flores was a master horseman trained like his father and grandfather, who homesteaded a 160-acre ranch in 1869 that encompassed Sycamore Canyon and La Patera.

The Flores Casita is the last remaining front-country structure built on any of the subsequent subdivisions of the Flores Ranch that retains its original likeness. Dye discovered the Flores Casita in 2002 during her search for a home in a natural environment where she could retire.

Urban historian Jake Jacobus said he doesn’t believe that Dye’s casita has significant historical merit. He said he recognizes it as the last of a number of back-country cabins on the Flores Ranch, but that it’s not as important as the adobe that Flores lived in but that no longer exists.

“In my opinion, it’s not something up to the standard of landmark status,” Jacobus said.

Dye said she didn’t know the property’s history upon purchasing the 528-square-foot house with her retirement savings, but was happy to restore a home that otherwise would have been unused.

The house shifted off its foundation during the Aug. 13, 1978, Santa Barbara earthquake, a destructive magnitude-5.1 quake that left the structure uninhabitable until Dye bought it 20 years later. She then spent $40,000 on a foundation overhaul after receiving her first permit in 2002.

Shortly after construction began, Dye received a stop-work notice from then-city building inspector Craig Fraki in June 2003. It was the beginning of Dye’s seven-year effort to get a new permit to continue construction.

Estrella’s interpretation of the 1984 Landslide Ordinance categorized laying a new foundation at the Flores Casita as new, prohibited construction, he said. But Dye said the foundations of four neighboring residences within the landslide area were permitted.

Her attorneys at Egenolf Associates referred Dye to consulting building official Roy Harthorn, who held the chief building official position before Estrella.

“He has supported me more than I could have hoped for,” Dye said.

Harthorn took up the Flores Casita case essentially pro bono, charging Dye for 1 percent of the time he has spent, because she already had used equity from her Ventura condominium to partially finance the house’s repairs.

The Flores family and property hold special importance for Harthorn because he remembers going on a daylong tour of Santa Barbara during his first day as the assistant building official in 1987. At the end of a long day of driving, his boss pointed out where the Flores Ranch used to be in Sycamore Canyon.

“That stuck in my mind until the first hour I started working for Linda,” he told Noozhawk.

As a specialist in preservation of historical landmarks after earthquakes, Harthorn guided Dye through the process of getting the Flores Casita approved by the Historic Landmarks Commission for the city’s list of Potential Historic Resources.

Recognition as a structure of merit mandates that the owner maintain and restore the structure to its historical likeness, city attorney Steve Wiley said.

Harthorn said having the Flores Casita recognized as a historical resource allowed it to be placed under the jurisdiction of the California Office of Historic Preservation and state Historic Building Code.

Dye was advised to exhaust all administrative appeals of Santa Barbara’s refusal to permit the casita’s restoration. The process took her to Napa, where the State Historical Building Safety Board disagreed with Estrella’s conclusion that a new foundation was not routine repair, that the house was abandoned and that the structure should be demolished.

No city officials attended that meeting, and there was no mandate for them to do so, Harthorn said.

“It was kind of a nonissue,” Wiley recalled.

Estrella said it’s important that the Flores Casita follow the building code, not only for Dye’s safety but the safety of her neighbors and emergency services personnel who may need to access the home.

“The purpose of the ordinance is that once the usefulness of the home expires it not be rebuilt,” he said.

Harthorn said he disagrees fundamentally with that interpretation of the ordinance.

“There is no regulation, city or state, that says you lose your property rights by leaving it vacant and abandoned,” said Harthorn, adding that routine maintenance required to restore a house — historical or not — and make it habitable is vastly permissible.

Bob Sedivy, a former supervising engineer with the Department of Public Works, said he believes the City Council made the right decision in allowing Dye and the other homeowners to rebuild.

During his 20-year career with the city, Sedivy said he saw houses that were expanded well beyond their historical likeness, and that the one-time, 150-square-foot expansion to the Flores Casita is reasonable.

“It’s not that large of an addition that it’s being taken advantage of,” Sedivy said. “If it made sense and it was built in a historically accurate way, let them build.”

Councilwoman Michael Self toured the Flores Casita property with Estrella on June 15 and said she recognized the importance of preserving the World War II-era house.

“It looks like great effort and expense is going into rehabilitating a home of merit, and I think it’s something to be applauded — not given added obstacles,” Self said at last week’s council meeting.

Although the amendments have a strong chance of being passed from the consent calendar Tuesday, Dye still must go through the process of having the Flores Casita reapproved as a habitable residence.

Flores had a lot split for the property approved by the Planning Commission and City Council in the 1950s, but never had a surveyor do a final map of the property, Wiley said.

Dye will have to receive a certificate of compliance from the city engineer before she can legally reside at the Flores Casita, Wiley said.

“It’s probably still possible for Ms. Dye to get the certificate,” he said.

Harthorn said he believes that the long road to having the Flores Casita approved as a historically significant site comes from a predisposition among city staff that landmarks should be beautiful.

“There are many rural structures that aren’t architectural gems but are associated with important events and important people,” he said.

Noozhawk intern Daniel Langhorne will be a junior at Chapman University in the fall. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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