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Council OKs historic zoning status for two properties rejected by ZAP

Friday, April 30, 2010 by Josh Rosenblatt

Two weeks after members of the Zoning and Platting Commission turned consideration of two homes in West Austin into a heated discussion about the pros and cons of historic zoning in the city, the City Council voted unanimously Thursday to approve those two houses for historic landmark status. But they didn’t do so without first acknowledging ZAP’s concern that the recent preponderance of historic zoning applicants could be hurting rather than helping the city. (See In Fact Daily, April 7, 2010.)


The two properties in question, the Fitzgerald-Upchurch Wilkerson House at 1710 Windsor Road and the Judge David J. and Birdie Pickle House at 1515 Murray Lane, were both initially represented by Suzanne Deaderick, the agent who made news last December when she brought two dozen homes before Council for historical zoning consideration. At that meeting, Council members voted to approve all the properties in question but also directed staff to revisit historic zoning laws and reconsider them from the point of view of lost property tax revenue and socio-economic inequity.


ZAP echoed those concerns at their meeting April 6 when they considered and rejected the Pickle and Fitzgerald-Upchurch applications. “We’re subsidizing property owners in houses near or in excess of a million dollars,” ZAP Chair Betty Baker said, “That’s what’s bothering me. If you live in these areas and you own these homes, you can afford to pay the taxes. We have people with homes valued in excess of $1 million getting tax exemptions, while people in East Austin are losing their homes because they can’t pay taxes.”


The current limit on city abatements for individual houses is $2,000 but the county and school district offer sizeable abatements also.


Though Council did vote to approve historic rezoning for the two properties, several Council members confirmed their desire to take up the landmark-rezoning issue soon. Speaking about the Fitzgerald-Upchurch Wilkerson House, Council Member Chris Riley referenced the ZAP meeting and the issues that were raised there and said he shared some of their concerns. “This house deserves it,” he said, “but I think we do need to have some discussions about the benefits of historic zoning.”


Mayor Lee Leffingwell said he agreed with Riley but stressed that it would be unfair to judge what he saw as worthy properties under new guidelines that haven’t even been written yet, much less made official.


“We have to take some action to control the number of historic structures, due to the budgetary impact,” he said, “but at the same time, we don’t want to penalize a qualified structure just because we may be thinking about trying to solve a problem.”


Those comments were echoed almost verbatim during the brief discussion about the Pickle House application. Riley again stressed that he was looking forward to re-addressing the historic zoning statutes.


“We still have further work to do about the benefits associated with historic zoning,” Riley said, “and I would expect any adjustments to apply to this case as well.”


Council Member Randi Shade said the current system is “an unsustainable long-term model, to go at the rate we’ve been going. So we’ll definitely be looking at making changes sooner rather than later.”

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