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SOHO’s $340 million hole in our tax base

You have to hand it to Save Our Heritage Organisation (SOHO): They, as President Obama likes to say, “punch far above their weight class.”

SOHO is San Diego’s small band of zealot activists who have successfully promoted what a San Diego County grand jury has called “History Hysteria.”

The result of their narrow-minded focus has been, that as of the March 2008 the County Tax Assessor calculated an erosion of our tax base through “historic” designation tax breaks of $343,260,589 in the assessed valuation of local real estate due to their being dubbed “historic.”

These reduced valuations erode revenues to our local agencies, which regularly complain that they do not have enough money to take care of infrastructure.

The county tax collector estimated that as of 2008, the city was losing over a half million dollars every year in taxes while the school district loses a whopping $1,486,317 every year.

While SOHO loves middle-aged buildings, they do not love our kids.

Not only do SOHO-inspired policies bleed the tax base, SOHO uses its influence to grab public property for its own use.

They cadged the million-dollar location in Old Town known as the Whaley House, along with a nearby historic home to use as their “headquarters.”

The Adobe Chapel is chained up and padlocked.

Oh, and they “own” the historic chapel a few blocks away that is chained up and padlocked.

Why should a private group be gifted with these public assets? How is that legal?

The Whaley House has not been managed very well. The newly restored building was recently sporting rotten window sills through lack of care and a stolen shutter.

The rot was painted over and the shutter belatedly replaced.

The wooden front porch is being prematurely warped and peeling thanks to an errant sprinkler system that SOHO somehow does not care to fix.

SOHO’s power has resulted in the creation of Historic Resources Boards (HRB’s) made up of unelected people who can designate property historic at the request of and worse, over the objections of the owners.

They declare homes historic because some owners, who have no intention whatsoever of changing the façade of their buildings, want a tax break.

The grand jury found that was the primary motive for most requested designations.

A SOHO note on the gate of the Adobe Chapel.

So far they have designated 150 “Craftsman homes” as historic. The grand jury rightfully asks: “Just how many Craftsman home examples do we need?”

The HRB is about to repeat the Craftsman madness by designating “ranch houses” as historic.

HRBs can do all of this in spite of the fact that such designations create enormous extra costs or worse, completely destroy the value of the property.

Such is the fate of both the California Theater right next door to City Hall and the Red Roost Cabins on valuable La Jolla land.

Both locations now stand as monuments to the stupidity of the entire idea that these nonelected boards can permanently deprive landowners of the value of their land and create neighborhood blight and there is no appeal.

It is now over five years since the grand jury recommended that the city create an appeal from HRB decisions, along with a process to review designations wherein the owners have not kept historic faith on their property. Five years, no action.

SOHO must terrify the elected officials to keep them from righting this wrong.

If the City Council removed the historic designations on these properties, they would spring to life.

The blight would disappear and those parcels would start paying substantial taxes for our kids’ schools.

What exactly is wrong with that idea, City Council?

Just for some perspective, San Diego designates three times the number of “historic” properties as Los Angeles, which is three times as large.

If you are unfortunate enough to get ensnared by this mindless bureaucracy, here is what you can expect.

You buy the property. You conceive of a project and obtain the financing. You spend money to have an architect prepare blueprints. You bid the project out and select contractors to do the job.

You submit your plan to the city and someone there kicks the plan into historic review, a separate, irrational maze of self-serving and mendacious incompetence.

You receive a notice informing you of the review.

Do they review the project and decide whether it is historic or not?

Nope! You have to hire a historic specialist. There are only a few in town and they are of course busy with all the make-work SOHO has created for them.

Thousands of dollars of additional studies and months of delay later, your project comes before a board of unelected zealots who have already made up their minds. You do not have a prayer and you do not have an appeal.

If you get an involuntary designation, your plans are wasted. Your contractors and their bids all blow into the wind.

You then become subject to being told by a city staffer, who may have never owned a home or created a project, how you are to proceed.

This is all insane. And not one member of the City Council or the mayor has had the gumption to fix it.

So the tax base continues to erode, we get 10 more Craftsman houses designated; historic consultants get more jobs; and San Diego taxpayers and property owners get the shaft.

As the grand jury so courteously put it: “The City Council should reign in the number of properties designated historic.”

The HRB involuntary designation process and supporting laws are unconstitutional deprivations of property rights without due process of law.

The willy-nilly duplicative historic designations for speculative purposes are illegal gifts of public funds.

Business as usual at City Hall.

Stirling, a former U.S. Army officer, has been elected to the San Diego City Council, state Assembly and state Senate. He also served as a municipal and superior court judge in San Diego. Send comments to larry.stirling@sddt.com. Comments may be published as Letters to the Editor.

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6 UserComments
Dan Soderberg 8:21am April 9, 2014

If the Daily Transcript is interested in printing the truth about the so called and alleged "hole" in the tax base, try interviewing University San Diego Economics Professor Andrew Narwold. His study, along with others elsewhere, TOTALLY debunk what Larry Stirling alleges. Stirling is simply unqualified to comment on a subject which he obviously knows nothing about. The "commentary" of his which you published is 100% fiction.

Jaye MacAskill 4:16pm April 7, 2014

I've never read an article anywhere in my life that was so factually incorrect that there was literally an error in every single sentence (and in some cases two or more errors per sentence). Reading this article is like experiencing a world-gone-mad. If the Daily Transcript has any integrity, it will write an apology to SOHO for such a slanderous piece, and it will correct every single lie Mr. Stirling put forth, then send him off into retirement.

Dan Soderberg 4:27pm April 4, 2014

Larry Stirling is ridiculously far behind the times. His arguments were disproved resoundingly in 2008 when Jerry Sanders made the same pitch. Economic studies nation wide are recognized templates showing Mills Act is an economic boon to the local economy, not a drain. Poor Larry. How did he miss the boat on that news story?

Erik 9:59pm April 3, 2014

The author's implication that San Diego has three times the number of designated properties than the City of Los Angeles is in error. A few minutes of Googling would tell you that both cities have about 1000 locally registered properties, LA about 100 more. But that just tells me that we care more about history here. And, it's not the whole story. For example, just the city of Pasadena, in LA County, has 125 National Register properties (the class that the Red Rest is in) but the entire San Diego County (more than 12 times Pasadena's population) has just 139. And nobody has claimed that Pasadena's real estate market has suffered because of this.

Erik 4:10pm April 3, 2014

The grounds and building of the Adobe Chapel are locked when the site is not open, to keep vandals and the homeless out. Why is this such an unusual thing? It's typical of almost any building, historic or not. Mr Sterling has been around long enough to remember the building before SOHO managed (not "owned" ) it. While the hours it is open are not as frequent as many would like, under the old management it was NEVER possible to enter the building: one had to be content with walking 18" into the doorway and viewing it from behind a cage. SOHO has sponsored plays, films, Gregorian choir practices and performances there, as well as tours, that have given more access to the City-owned building than the 1930s. The different group that previously managed the Whaley house lost their gig in great part because the house was simply not open when it was scheduled to be. It often was not open for weeks at at a time. SOHO has had it open at least 6 days a week, never missing a day, in over 10 years.

Erik 3:46pm April 3, 2014

It's hard to think of an article I have read in my life with so much wrong, and I read a lot of odd stuff. As the person that did most of the restoration work on that window of the Whaley House, I must take person offense at Mr Sterling's comments. The rot was not "painted over" I removed much rot and carefully replaced it with wooden dutchmen and wood-boat grade epoxy with wood aggregate. The rot was painted over during the previous restoration(s) supervised by the County. My work was done at no cost to the County, who owns the building. The shutter was not stolen, but temporarily removed so it didn't fall off. I would have gladly given Mr Sterling a description of the work process, had he asked. This building, which has been a museum since before SOHO was founded, SHOULD be shown as an example of the privatization that Conservatives usually like. The Whaley House and other Old Town museums are a massive draw for the countless privately owned business nearby.