In an opinion expected to strengthen the movement to preserve and restore old houses in Angelino Heights, the Los Angeles city attorney has said the historic district's architectural review board should be treated as a government agency but can solicit private donations for operating costs.
Members of the city-appointed Angelino Heights Historic Preservation Assn., the first of only two such groups in Los Angeles, were worried that they might be sued by a property owner angered by one of their recommendations. They wanted assurances that a city attorney would defend them. They also wanted approval for fund-raising because they get no city money.
"I think this allows us to go forward with more confidence," association President Tom Morales said of the recent opinion. "It supports our credibility."
"It is very helpful," said Bill Garcia, aide to Councilman John Ferraro, whose district includes Angelino Heights.
The 22-month-old association is empowered to review almost all proposals for renovation and construction in the hillside neighborhood just east of Echo Park and just north of the Hollywood Freeway.
Considered a treasure chest of gingerbread-covered Victorian houses and the simpler Craftsman-California-style homes with pitched roofs and stone porches, the neighborhood was declared the city's first Historic Preservation Overlay Zone in 1983.
A second such zone, South Carthay, between Olympic and Pico boulevards just east of La Cienega Boulevard, has since been named, and a third, North University Park near USC, is expected to receive the designation soon.
Each zone has a neighborhood preservation panel whose five unpaid members recommend to the Planning Commission whether a project deserves "a certificate of appropriateness"--whether, as required by city ordinance, the style, size, colors, materials and landscaping fit in with the surrounding landmark buildings. Plans to cover the exterior of a wood-frame house with stucco have prompted heated debate at local association hearings.
As the pioneers in such reviews, the Angelino Heights association soon had questions about its status, especially since some builders and residents consider the historic-zone process an unwarranted intrusion on property rights. A lawsuit has been threatened in at least one case. "We wanted to be defined better," Morales explained. "We thought we were part of the city. We just wanted them to tell us that."
"They didn't know whether they are fish or fowl," said Garcia.
The opinion, written by Assistant City Atty. Anthony S. Alperin and issued late last month, repeatedly refers to the association's having a definite link to municipal government, even though it is only an advisory board.
"The association was created by city ordinance; its functions are authorized to be funded by the city; it performs a governmental function, and it is otherwise legally treated as a public entity," the opinion says.
The ruling does not directly address the question of how far the city would go to defend an association member in a lawsuit. However, association members and Ferraro's office interpret the opinion as saying that the board is fully covered by the city's legal insurance and staff.
Alperin refused to discuss his opinion with The Times.
His opinion also states that the association can solicit and accept certain donations to offset operating costs. But it said: "We would caution, however, that care should be taken that solicitations are not made in a way which might raise a question as to the impartiality of the association in acting on matters which come before it. Thus, for example, the association should not solicit donations from persons who have matters pending before it."
Association members say that they don't want donations in lieu of pay but that they need funds for telephone bills, photocopying, mailings, possible architectural surveys and possible consultants' fees. Officials say that being able to obtain grants might allow the association to act as more of a consulting service to property owners who need advice on design.
"We are sometimes misunderstood," said association Vice Chairman Robert Good. "We would like to continue educating people about our role."
The opinion also said that any meetings of the association must be public as required by the Brown Act. However, the ruling said the association does not yet have to adopt a conflict-of-interest code because it has operated only a short time. State law requires such codes for advisory boards that have made recommendations over an extended time, the ruling says. The Angelino Heights association has reviewed about 15 projects.