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Council finds no easy answers in historic zoning case

Friday, February 1, 2008 by Mark Richardson

It may take a Solomonic decision by Council members to resolve the issues that confront them in the zoning case of the Colley-Hays House in West Austin. The city’s Historic Landmark Commission is seeking to give the early-1900s-era Deep Eddy home an historic designation, despite the owner’s plans to move the structure to Liberty Hill to serve as a home for an elderly relative.

By a one-vote margin, Council members approved the historic designation on first reading Thursday, but because of a valid petition against the zoning change, it will take six votes on second and third reading to pass the measure.

The Colley-Hays House, at 718 Norwalk Lane, 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, whose relatives still live in the home.

The historic zoning case on the house was initiated after the owners filed for a demolition permit in order to move the building. A number of West Austin residents seeking to preserve the home at its current location opposed that request.

However, City Historic Officer Steve Sadowsky told the Council that, in his opinion, the house did not meet the normal criteria for an historic designation. He noted that while it was clear Henry Colley had owned the land, there was no evidence that he actually lived in the house at 718 Norwalk. He also pointed out that a 1906 guide to prominent African American citizens in Austin included no mention of Colley.

During more than an hour of sometimes highly emotional testimony, speakers in favor of historic zoning spoke of the particular need to preserve the history of Austin’s African American heritage. Opponents of the change, mostly members of the Hays family, spoke of how their family has gathered in the home for generations and should have the right to decide what to do with their property.

Chris Alguire with the West Austin Neighborhood Group made a presentation about the residences in West Austin of former slaves. She said the house made an important contribution to the history of the neighborhood, especially considering that one of the freedmen who lived in area following the Civil War could have owned it

“There is a long history of African Americans living in West Austin,” she said. “The Colley House is important because Henry Colley was the only African American who actually owned and lived on the land. That’s very significant.”

Jon Donisi with the Heritage Society of Austin said his group had worked with the family to try to find a way to preserve the house but could not come to an accommodation.

“The house is on two lots of a four lot subdivision,” he said. “We suggested we could find a way to move the house onto one lot and they could develop the other lots. We also suggested upzoning the lots to add value, or possibly moving the house to the O’Henry Middle School campus. But none of this worked.”

Betsy Mott, with her sister Ruth, are the heirs to the Hays estate. Betsy Mott told the Council that she and her sister had originally put the house and the land on the market to help finance care for their mother, who was ill. When their mother died a few months later, they took the house off the market and began making plans to sell the land and move the house to a subdivision in Liberty Hill, near where their parents had grown up.

“The house is not in good condition… it’s a health hazard,” she said. “But we need the money from selling the land to be able to restore the house and move it. But because of how much it will cost, if we keep the house where it is, we can’t afford to restore it.”

She noted that she does not have a lot of money, and that she cannot afford to remodel the house where it is. “That house has been in the Hays family for 64 years,” Mott said. “We should be able to decide what happens to it.”

Council Member Sheryl Cole said she was concerned over city staff’s criteria for an historic home. “You don’t have to be prosperous to be prominent,” she said. “The fact that a freedman laborer was able to buy and hold onto land in that era is remarkable.”

However, Mayor Pro Tem Betty Dunkerly expressed doubts about whether Colley actually lived in the house.

“I wish there was some way to honor both families,” she said. “Perhaps there is some way we can denote the history of the site without forcing the owners to keep the house there.”

Council Member Brewster McCracken, who said he has always been a staunch supporter of the city’s efforts to preserve its history, said he had trouble with forcing historic zoning on this property.

“If we approve the historic zoning, we will either force them to lose their home, or they will be stuck in a home with $35,000 a year in taxes,” he said. “I don’t think either one is a fair outcome.”

Council members voted 4-3 to approve the historic zoning on first reading, with Mayor Will Winn, Dunkerley and McCracken voting no. However, it will take six votes to win final approval because of the homeowner’s petition.

Because of a Feb 15 deadline for the Motts to complete the purchase of land in Liberty Hill, Wynn instructed staff to bring the item back at the Feb. 14 Council meeting.

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