Council avoids precedent, upholds fines for illegal demolitions
The Los Gatos Town Council put homeowners on notice that it will not compromise the town’s historic homes ordinance in deterring property owners from going too far during a remodel, regardless of intent.
In a hotly contested split vote at a recent public hearing, council members upheld decisions that fined two property owners more than $100,000 after their contractors improperly demolished walls during the remodel of their historic homes. The council eventually agreed to a compromise with one homeowner by refunding half of the penalty.
Following the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989, the town adopted an ordinance governing the demolition of historic homes because developers were demolishing the properties under the guise of a “remodel” and replacing them with homes that didn’t even resemble the original historic structures.
By definition, any home built in Los Gatos before 1941 is considered a historic property and falls under the ordinance. Homes within the town’s five designated historic districts—Almond Grove, Broadway, Fairview Plaza, University/Edelen and the Downtown Commercial Historic District—also fall under the rules.
Town officials estimate there are 2,500 historic homes in Los Gatos.
Although council members acknowledged the illegal teardowns were unintentional and the town’s procedures that could have prevented the demolitions were flawed, they found setting a dangerous precedent was the real issue.
“We have to stand behind the penalties for the demolition,” Councilmember Marcia Jensen said.
Town attorney Robert Schulz admitted neither contractor was required to sign the town’s demolition affidavit confirming they understood how to proceed consistent with the historic homes ordinance.
Dieter Schmidt appealed a fine of $82,950 imposed after his contractor tore out a wall during the 2010 remodel of his home at 130 Massol Ave.
“Central to the town’s levying a fine were allegations that our contractor ignored the town’s demolition affidavit, which was never presented by the town nor signed by the contractor or us,” Schmidt said in his appeal.
David Plewa and Tami Shoot changed contractors before construction began in the 2014 remodel of their home at 205 University Ave. While the contractor who initiated the remodel submitted the affidavit, the contractor who did the work did not. That contractor discovered a rotting wall, so he tore it out and replaced it before the homeowners were even aware it was not permitted. The town fined them $23,200.
A fine is punishment as a deterrent for intentionally violating the rules, Plewa said. “We don’t feel that’s what happened in our circumstance.”
Councilmembers Steve Leonardis and Marcia Jensen sided with the property owners over concerns about the process itself.
“It sounds as though we might have been negligent,” said Leonardis, who also took issue with what he described as the town staff “bullying” Schmidt by holding his remodel hostage until he paid the fine and could proceed. “We are the law, we set the rules and we don’t even follow our own policies.”
“Ignorance is no excuse,” said Vice Mayor Rob Rennie, who agreed intent is important but was more concerned with setting a bad precedent. Rennie offered the compromise to reduce Schmidt’s fine.
All council members agreed the demolition at 205 University should not have happened and ordered the homeowners to pay the penalty.
Mayor Marico Sayoc admitted what happened with 130 Massol was “an embarrassment” but said enforcing the ordinance “is not a decision on intent or malice.”
“Your intent was to preserve a beautiful home you both love,” Sayoc said. “Rules are not meant to make that judgment call.,” but rather to determine whether there was a demolition and, if so, whether it warrants fines, she said.
The two cases have dragged on over a number of years because town officials also admitted neither property owner was advised of the right to appeal the staff’s decision to impose the penalties. Additionally, the town sought clarification whether three of the town’s five council members had conflicts of interest because they live within 500 feet of one of the two properties. The Fair Political Practices Commission determined in February no conflict existed that precluded the council members from deciding the appeals.
Town manager Laurel Prevetti said the town has since worked to improve the process.
“The internal challenges have been fixed,” Prevetti said. “We really want to make sure folks know we are in partnership.”