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Donisi offers another perspective on ordinance change

Friday, May 8, 2009 by Austin Monitor

Attorney John Donisi wants to set the record straight when it comes to just when and how the decision was made to revise the city’s historic preservation ordinance, revisions that could go to Council in the coming months. In Fact Daily reported Thursday that Zoning and Platting Commission chair Betty Baker had painted the picture that the changes were by the City Council and city staff in backroom negotiations.

Donisi, the current president of the Heritage Society of Austin and a former member of the Zoning and Platting Commission, served on the historic preservation task force and a follow-up task force, both headed by Baker.

The original historic preservation task force took a broad view of the ordinance, Donisi said. A number of sections within the ordinance were revised, with special emphasis on historic tax abatements. The task force was reconvened to clean up the language and consider how to use the ordinance to create local historic districts, a concept which has yet to come to fruition.

These new revisions came from the preservation community and the urban core neighborhoods, Donisi said.  The group presented a list of modest, but meaningful, revisions to the preservation program.

At the time, Council directed staff to draft the code revisions, which were presented to the Operations Committee of the Historic Landmark Commission. None of this was hidden, Donisi said. The proposal went to the full Historic Landmark Commission in a posted public meeting. Then it went on to the Codes and Ordinances subcommittee of the Planning Commission.

“This proposed ordinance has had more public process than most proposed revisions,” Donisi wrote in an explanation to In Fact Daily. “I know you want to ensure that things are reported correctly, and that your reporter understands that a code cannot be ‘changed or revised’ with some Svengali-like wave of the hand, or, as he or she reported, by ‘unknown negotiations between staff and Council offices.’”

The ordinance went to ZAP as a courtesy, Donisi said. The recommendations will go to both Planning Commission and Council for approval, Donisi said. Here is a list of the changes planned for this section of the code, according to Donisi:

  • Clarifies the percentage of assessed value exempted for stand-alone historic landmarks, consistent with the intent of Council and Task Force (Sec. 11-1-22(B)(2));
  • Establishes with TCAD that an entire tax parcel containing a historic structure is reasonably necessary for access to and use of the structure, unless stated otherwise by Council (Sec. 11-1-22(C));
  • Requires petition of the owners of at least 51 percent of the land in the proposed district to initiate zoning of a district, a reduction from the current 60 percent (Sec. 25-2-242(5));
  • Codifies that City-owned property may account for up to one-third of the 51 percent of the land within a local historic district necessary for the petition requirements to initiate zoning of a district (Sec. 25-2-242(5));
  • Removes application requirements from Code requiring applicants to submit  inventories and ownership and occupancy histories, to be addressed administratively or within the application process (Sec. 25-2-353(B), Sec. 25-2-355(B)(3));
  • Removes the requirement from Code that an evaluation of an application be made, at applicant’s expense, by a person meeting the Secretary of the Interior’s professional standards, also to be addressed administratively or within the application process (Sec. 25-2-353(C));
  • Revises the supermajority vote necessary by the Historic Landmark Commission to initiate historic zoning upon submission of a written statement protesting historic zoning from three-quarters to two-thirds, to reflect the reduction in membership (Sec. 25-2-355(C));
  • Clarifies that a written statement protesting historic zoning and triggering the supermajority zone must be from a record owner, as opposed to a notice owner (Sec. 25-2-355(C));
  • Expands the historic preservation officer’s ability to administratively approve changes or restorations to historic structures that do not visibly affect the historic character of the structure from an adjacent public street (Sec. 25-11-212(B)(3));
  • Expands the classes of properties that shall trigger review by the historic preservation officer or Commission, currently limited to structures located in a National Register Historic District or listed in an approved survey of historic structures (Sec. 25-11-213);
  • Revises time limits for action by the historic preservation officer and Commission to better conform with meeting schedules, and tolls time limits for action upon postponements requested or agreed to by the applicant (Sec. 25-11-213(E)-(G), 25-11-249);
  • Makes conforming changes to address the triggering of pendency of designation protections for structures (Sec. 25-11-214); and
  • Adds a new section establishing a procedure to address the omission of necessary repairs or demolition by neglect of a historic structure (Sec. 25-11-216 et. seq).

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