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McCracken, Leffingwell joust over historic homes measure

Friday, October 17, 2008 by Austin Monitor

Some proposed changes to the city’s regulations relating to prosecution of homeowners who fail to maintain historic houses sparked a small battle Thursday between two Council Members who have expressed an interest in running for Mayor in 2009.


Council Member Lee Leffingwell has championed the idea of preventing what is called “demolition by neglect” of old homes. He was the chief sponsor of a resolution instructing the City Manager to begin work on changes to the portion of the Land Development Code dealing with historic preservation.


The item moving forward was simply a resolution, but Assistant City Attorney David Lloyd has been working with Leffingwell on a draft ordinance that was not public and had not been distributed to all Council Members, including Mayor Will Wynn.


But Mayor Pro Tem Brewster McCracken did have a copy of the draft ordinance and wanted to grill Lloyd on it, not allowing the item to move forward as part of the Council’s consent agenda.


After the discussion, the Council instructed the City Manager to begin work on changes to the portion of the code dealing with historic preservation. Those changes, when brought back to the Council for final approval, would allow staff to administratively approve minor renovation projects on buildings within National Register Historic Districts. The proposed new rules also include changes in the voting requirements on the Historic Landmark Commission for recommending historic zoning and a clarification on the property tax exemptions for landmark structures.


But the part that McCracken objected to was language in the draft allowing the HLC to refer “demolition by neglect” cases to the City Attorney’s office for possible criminal prosecution or civil enforcement.


“We’re going to need to have some review and checks and balances, because this Council has had respectful but significant differences with a number of the actions the Historic Landmark Commission has taken in the last few years…where we have overturned their recommendations,” McCracken said. “I don’t think we should be empowering the commission with no review to initiate civil or criminal actions against Austin homeowners.”


Leffingwell said McCracken’s objections were premature. “This is simply a resolution to go forward with the process. There are going to be many changes before this comes back to us,” he said. “That would be the appropriate time to go line by line, paragraph by paragraph, to discuss the fine points of an ordinance which does not exist to us as a draft proposal at this point.”


According to the Lloyd, the language in question would still allow the City Attorney’s office discretion on handling any neglect cases referred by the HLC. “The intent was to give a number of options for dealing with a property where the owner refuses to maintain the historic structure,” he said.


The item was originally part of the consent agenda. But McCracken made a substitute motion to approve the consent agenda without that particular item and Wynn seconded the motion—apparently to move the consent agenda forward.


The consent agenda then passed on a vote of 6-1, with Leffingwell opposed. He told In Fact Daily he voted no on McCracken’s substitute motion because he wanted the item considered with the rest of the consent items.


The city’s legal staff told the Council that the working draft was based, in part, on language adopted by other cities that penalized owners of historic properties that allowed them to deteriorate. The proposed code amendments will be circulated to the Historic Landmark Commission, the Planning Commission’s Codes and Ordinances committee, the full Planning Commission, and the Zoning and Platting Commission for review before coming back to the City Council, which will hold a public hearing before voting on any changes.

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