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Council approves 24 homes as historic landmarks, seeks new guidelines

Friday, December 18, 2009 by Josh Rosenblatt

With the year coming to a close, and homeowners in the city racing in unprecedented numbers to take advantage of tax abatements that come with historic zoning status, City Council yesterday voted to approve the rezoning of 24 properties with the understanding that city staff will provide recommendations in the future for possibly revising city code on the issue.


Council Member Bill Spelman raised the issue last week, saying that the 25 properties up for historic rezoning on that week’s docket (more than in any previous year) represented a potentially damaging blow to the tax revenue of the city, Travis County, the Austin Independent School District, and Austin Community College.


Spelman and other council members, including Randi Shade, also voiced their concern over the issue of third-party agents guiding properties through the process on a contingency-fee basis. Spelman said he worried that these owners, blinded by promises of reduced property taxes, might not be aware of the obligations and restrictions that come with owning a historic property. For example, when a home is zoned historic it cannot be demolished, it has to be maintained at standards set by the Historic Landmark Commission, and any changes to the property – from additions to repainting – must first be approved by the commission.


As such, the Council voted to postpone approval of the rezonings and instruct city staff to contact every homeowner who had hired an agent to make sure he/she understood their obligations and the restrictions associated with a change in status. Council also instructed staff to study the possibility of revising city code to cap the number of properties that could be considered for landmark status and to investigate the issue of neighborhood equity.


Yesterday, Jerry Rusthoven of the Planning and Development Review Department again recommended the Council approve the rezoning of the 24 properties from the week before (one property was removed from consideration by the owner, who requested a postponement until February) and told the Council that staff had spent the week contacting the owners of all properties that were being represented by an agent to confirm that they were aware of their responsibilities to maintain their structures in accordance with Landmark Commission guidelines. He said that they had spoken to most of the owners and that all of those they spoke to said they were aware of those obligations.


Rusthoven then told Council that city staff would like permission to conduct research on three ideas that might help address the high volume of historic zoning cases and then come back at a future Council meeting with a request for a possible code amendment.


Those ideas are:

·       A limit on the number of owner-initiated proposals that would come before the Historic Landmark Commission at each meeting;

·       A dollar cap on the number of cases the City can exempt per year; and

·       A cap based upon geographic distribution so that not all cases come from one particular neighborhood.


“Staff feels that all these ideas have some merit,” Rusthoven said, “We don’t think these ideas are mutually exclusive; we think it would be a good idea to include all three of them. We would like some time to go out and research it. We’d be coming back and requesting the Council initiate a code amendment.


“So what I’m telling you is we will not do anything with the rule-making process and will not take anything to the Planning Commission. What we would do is come back to the Council and ask if you would like us to initiate a code amendment.”


The motion to approve the 24 cases on second and third reading with additional instructions to staff to come back with a proposal for restrictions and limitations was amended slightly by Council Member Laura Morrison, who asked staff to “engage folks that are on the Historic Landmark Commission as well as the Heritage Society … to include them in the conversation” while doing their research.


Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez, echoing comments made by Council Member Sheryl Cole at least week’s meeting, said, “I want to go on the record and say, adding to your component of research, that you look at what other cities have been able to come up with and accomplish in regards specifically to lower-income and minority neighborhoods, where we historically don’t see a lot of preservation taking place and maybe opportunities (are being) missed.”


Council then voted unanimously to approve the cases on second and third readings, after which they voted to approve on all three readings three other properties presented yesterday.


Now Council will wait for staff recommendations on a program that could have real economic and social implications for the city.


“It’s becoming clearer to us that are substantial costs to a program of this size,” Spelman told In Fact Daily. “If we continue to increase the number of cases, we’ll be shifting the tax burden from the west side to every other part of town because the west side’s where you have the most expensive houses, and it makes the most sense to seek historic zoning because you’re going to be able to get the most value out of it. If we’re talking about 50 to 100 houses a year, I think we ought to be rethinking the program’s restrictions.”


“We also have to ask ourselves,” he continued, “have we set ourselves up with a list of qualifications that only apply to expensive houses and a particular set of neighborhoods, or can we see historic value in that criteria all over the city? And if we can’t see it all over the city, then maybe we need to revisit the criteria. Because there’s historic value to found all over the city.”


Spelman, incidentally, lives in Hyde Park, an area known for its historic homes. He said he does not intend to ask for historic zoning on his property, which he said is old enough under the current regulations but probably not otherwise historically valuable.

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