|Juana Briones c. 1870|
Owners of a tract in Palo Alto that includes the vacant, earthquake-damaged adobe residence - one of the oldest homes in California - won an important legal round last week when the Sixth District Court of Appeal denied a rehearing to preservationists who challenged a demolition permit the City Council approved in 2007.
But the appeals court said a demolition permit, under the Palo Alto ordinance, is an administrative act with clear-cut standards, rather than a subjective decision that requires an environmental study. When a city authorizes demolition based on objective criteria, the court said, state law provides no special protection for historic structures. The court issued the ruling last month and elevated it last week to a precedent for future cases. Unless the state Supreme Court intervenes, the home could be torn down in the spring.
Among those lamenting the decision was Elaine Stiles, Western program officer for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, a nonprofit that works with local groups to protect historic sites. This year, the trust listed the Briones home among the nation's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. Briones was "a widely known and revered woman in early California history," Stiles said. "There are not a lot of significant features of landscape left from that early settlement period in California."
|Juana Briones House, Palo Alto's oldest house. |
Photo: Paul Sakuma / AP
Palo Alto declared the home a historic landmark in 1987. The state designated the site as a landmark in 1954. Briones' Bay Area roots extend beyond Palo Alto. She and her two sisters came to live at the Presidio in the 1810s, and Briones and her husband were the first recorded residents of the El Polin Spring area of the Spanish military outpost. Briones later lived near what is now Washington Square Park in San Francisco before buying a 4,400-acre rancho on the Peninsula in the 1840s, a land purchase that itself was historic.
According to a researcher quoted by the preservationists' lawyers, Briones, after being granted a legal separation from an abusive husband, was allowed by Mexican law to buy property independently of her husband. But after statehood in 1850, Briones - uneducated and illiterate - had to fight for more than 20 years in U.S. tribunals before validating her title to the land. She was famed as a healer and operated a hospital in her Palo Alto home, said Jeanne Farr McDonnell, executive director of the Women's Heritage Museum in San Francisco and author of a 2008 biography of Briones. "People from all over looked for her and sought out her skill," said McDonnell, a member of the group trying to preserve the house. She said Briones, taught by Native Americans and others familiar with local herbs, went to Bolinas to treat victims of a smallpox epidemic and trained her nephew, who practiced medicine there for the next half-century.
Briones died in 1889. Her daughter sold the home in 1900, and succeeding owners made renovations. Despite suffering damage in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, the building remained open for docent-led tours until new owners in 1993 cut off access, McDonnell said. After those owners made further renovations without a permit, the city's building inspector declared the structure dangerous in 1996 and ordered the old adobe section vacated, the appeals court said.
Nulman and Welczer bought the property a year later and sought permission to restore the old home while tearing down the wings. City officials argued that a contract giving the owners a property tax break, in exchange for maintaining the historic building, required restoration of the entire structure. But the city lost a seven-year court battle in 2006 and approved the demolition permit for the building in 2007.
The preservation group went to court the next day, arguing that the city had sidestepped requirements of its own permit process, including review by a municipal historic resources board. Such subjective policy decisions, the group said, triggered a state law that mandates an environmental study and consideration of alternatives. The appeals court disagreed, saying the rules for razing residential properties in the city are simple: The residence must be vacant, and any tenants must be notified. The historic board had the power to delay demolition but not to prevent it, the court said. Lawyers for the preservationists say the owners allowed removal of artifacts from the home but barred archaeologists who wanted to examine the adobe structure.
Klingsporn, the owners' lawyer, said he doesn't know whether they still plan to build on the land or sell it, but they have waited long enough to exercise their rights under the demolition permit.
"They bought the property to build a family home that their kids could grow up in," he said. Since then, he said, "their kids have grown up." For more info visit Juana Briones Heritage.