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Planners back historic zoning over owner’s objection

Thursday, January 31, 2008 by Austin Monitor

The City Council is scheduled to consider today whether to allow the owner of a West Austin home to move a circa 1900 house to Liberty Hill or to declare it historic, thus preventing the move, as some neighbors have requested.

On Tuesday, the Planning Commission recommended historic zoning for the house at 718 Norwalk Lane, which is believed to date back to the early 1900s. The owners want to move the structure to Liberty Hill to serve as the home for an elderly relative.

Known as the Colley-Hays House, the home is named for Henry Colley, an African American farmer born in the 1850’s who purchased the lot from the family of former Texas Governor Elisha Marshall Pease. Colley’s descendants sold the home in 1943 to Walter Hays, and relatives of Hays still live in the home.

The historic zoning case on the house was initiated after the current owners filed for a demolition permit in order to move the building. That request ran into strong opposition from some West Austin residents, including Chris Alguire with the West Austin Neighborhood Group. She told the commission that the house made an important contribution to the history of the neighborhood, especially considering it could have been owned by one of the freedmen who lived in area following the Civil War.

“We were intrigued when we found the African American ownership on the staff report,” she said. There was a good-sized settlement of freed slaves and other African Americans here. It represents a remarkable accomplishment by an illiterate freedman to obtain such a substantial home and additional land holdings.”

Commissioner Saundra Kirk urged her colleagues to act to preserve the house. “I sit here as somebody who’s lost just about every fragment of my family’s history, and that is so true of so many black people who have come from around this area,” she said. “Pretty soon, there won’t be anything left of a lot of the legacy of blacks in Austin. For me, the higher priority right now is to say this is a unique cultural significance for Austin that I would like us to protect and save.”

But descendants of Walter Hays argued that the home had been in their family now for more than 60 years, and that their current situation dictated a need to sell the property and move the home. “The heirs have found a buyer for the property. The sale will allow my aunt to renovate the family home at a location in Liberty Hill, where she will make it her home,” said Marty Glass, the great-grandson of Walter Hays. “This will allow a Hays family member to continue living in this home.”

Furthermore, agent Jim Bennett told the commission that Colley may not have ever lived in the house in question. “This is not the only piece of property that Mr. Colley owned. He owned 19 lots,” he said. “I don’t believe there’s been presentation and documentation to you that Mr. Colley ever occupied this structure.”

That uncertainty, along with the extensive modifications made to the home over the years, prompted Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky to recommend against historic zoning. “We certainly acknowledge that this house has a history,” he said. “The question is whether this history is provable care enough to justify a landmark designation for it. Staff, unfortunately, cannot recommend historic designation. It has too many alterations to it.”

But a majority of the commission felt the home was worth preserving. “This is such a jewel. The history is for two families that have really been pioneers in Austin. I really do think the house deserves historic zoning,” said Commissioner Mandy Dealey, “because of the Henry Colley contribution and the fact that he was absolutely an outstanding human being and was indeed a pioneer. I think that it is of such significance to Austin and its history that this is the right thing to do.”

Commissioners voted 7-1 to support her motion to recommend a change from SF-3 to SF-3-H, with only Commissioner Chris Ewen opposed. Chair Dave Sullivan urged the property owners to work with the neighborhood group to seek support for some other zoning for the property, such as SF-6, which would allow for the construction of new homes on the site while preserving the existing structure.

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