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Planning, ZAP split over historic district ordinance

Monday, July 27, 2009 by Kimberly Reeves

The two commissions that deal with land use and zoning issues – Planning, and Zoning and Platting – have split over a key recommendation for amending the five-year old ordinance that allows creation of local historic districts.

Planning Commission took its vote on the amendments earlier this month, clearing the way for the document to head to Council. The intention – as former Heritage Society of Austin president John Philip Donisi has explained to multiple boards – is to lower the bar just enough so that those dozen or so neighborhoods that have been working on local historic district applications can be considered for district status.

Almost five years after a special-called committee headed by ZAP Chair Betty Baker fleshed out a process for the creation of local historic districts, only one has been created. In recent Historic Landmark Commission meetings, some of the higher-profile neighborhoods, like Hyde Park, have complained about tear-downs, saying they were in the process of the local historic district application, which would set out firmer neighborhood design guidelines.

Members of the Planning Commission favored lowering the bar. Commissioner Mandy Dealey made the motion in favor of the code amendments in the name of the late Lowell Lebermann, who died last week and was instrumental in the creation of the city’s original historic landmark ordinance during his term on Council.

“We only have one historic district, frankly, because we make it so hard for neighbors to get together to do what they want to do,” Dealey said. “This is a first good step in resolving that.”

Commissioner Saundra Kirk agreed, noting that her Planning Commission subcommittee was looking at the specific local historic district application in order to simplify and streamline the process for neighborhoods.

The two recommendations all three commissions – Planning, Zoning and Platting and Historic Landmark – support:

·       Dropping the percentage of local homeowners who have to sign off on the local historic district from 60 percent to 51 percent. This would be in line with cities such as Houston, Galveston and San Antonio, while owner consent is not required in cities such as Denver, Philadelphia or Dallas; and

·       Shifting the research requirement so that it is done either administratively or within the application process, rather than before the application is approved for consideration. The application still would need to meet all standards and be reviewed by staff, commissions and Council, like any other zoning case.

The Zoning and Platting Commission, however, added some additional stipulations to the recommendations. The biggest one is that the minimum size of a historic district must be at least five acres, instead of one block face. The intention was not to make it harder, but to encourage full subdivisions to make application for local historic district status.

Commissioner Chris Ewen, who did vote in favor of the Planning Commission recommendations, acknowledged ZAP’s concerns, saying that smaller districts would create a strange sort of patchwork quilt to local historic neighborhoods.

“I’m going to defer to Commissioner Dealey on this … but I did want to register a little bit of concern about that,” Ewen said.

Other conditions ZAP added included excluding publicly owned property from the calculation of the historic district unless the features of the publicly owned property are historic. And it shortened the time of an owner being unable to pull a permit if he has violated local historic standards – which led to the demolition of a building – from three years to two years.

One advantage to encouraging local historic districts, Donisi noted, was that the districts would be a zoning category noted on a zoning map, giving actual notice to all interested buyers about potential development restrictions. This step along would save extensive time and energy for buyers, Donisi said. It also allows for tailored, neighborhood specific development restrictions.

The local historic district revisions are scheduled to go to Council on August 6.

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