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ZAP gets testy over historic landmark designations

Wednesday, April 7, 2010 by Kimberly Reeves

The Zoning and Platting Commission firmly rejected historic landmark designation on properties represented by agent Suzanne Deaderick last night, with Chair Betty Baker expressing her fear that too many tax abatements for historic homes, without a strong financial base, would put the city’s historic zoning ordinance in peril.


Deaderick, of course, is the agent who represented two-dozen West Austin property owners seeking tax abatements that made their way to Council for approval last December. That vote also led to a directive, from Council, to revisit abatements. When Deaderick was up at ZAP last night, Baker had plenty of questions for her, the first being whether she solicited the historic zoning cases or they were brought to her.


“They all contacted me,” Deaderick said.


Had she considered a local historic district, instead? asked Baker.


“That’s not something I’ve gotten involved in,” Deaderick replied.


Were these homes in danger, possibly on a path to be demolished? Baker asked.


“Not that I’m aware,” Deaderick replied.


With an almost audible sigh, Baker turned the cross-examination over to her colleagues on the Zoning and Platting Commission to consider the possible designation of Judge David and Birdie Pickle’s former house, located at 1515 Murphy Lane, as historic.


“I’ve been the bad guy,” Baker said. “It’s your turn now.”


Her ZAP colleagues fell in line, echoing the concerns of Council members in December when they questioned whether so many cases brought by Deaderick might suggest the need for new guidelines for historic landmark designation, including a possible limitation on the number of landmarks submitted to Council each year.


Commissioner Greg Bourgeois said he had a hard time connecting the public benefit with the $10,820 tax abatement being offered on the property. These owners, only owners since 2006, had never borne the cost of renovation or upkeep of a historic house, one of the best reasons for the abatement, Baker later pointed out in discussion of the case.


Baker, for her part, seized on the word “common” as it was used in Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky’s presentation in reference to the Pickle house’s architecture.


Did Deaderick know how many houses in the neighborhood shared that same style of construction? No. Did she know the name of the architect? No. What about the contractor? No again.


Sadowsky defended his case recommendation for zoning the Pickle home historic, saying many homes that he reviewed would never be referred to a commission. This, however, earned little traction with a commission that is headed by the city’s one-time preservation officer.


Baker noted that a historic designation, at one time, meant something. When asked by Baker, Sadowsky did agree that almost every home within the inner city is older than 50 years old, meeting a significant qualification for landmark designation. And, in terms of the central city, almost every former owner was affluent and possibly important to someone, given title or stature, Baker noted.


“We’re not opening Pandora’s box,” Baker said. “We’re building a bigger one.”


Later in the discussion, Baker quoted a one-time Historic Landmark Commission member who was skeptical of all historic zoning because she came from the East Coast, where many buildings are at least a century older.


“You can’t zone every bungalow in the city historic,” Baker quipped, quoting her. “You have to take the best.”


In her questioning, Baker narrowed her focus down to the tax abatement, noting that people who want to protect their houses could, instead, pursue historic districts but rarely do. However, when it comes to granting tax abatements – and Baker acknowledged the abatement’s importance in increasing participation in Austin’s historic preservation program – the benefits to the central city homeowner often end up being borne by property owners in other parts of town.


“We’re subsidizing property owners in houses near or in excess of a million dollars. That’s what’s bothering me,” Baker said. “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.”


Commissioner Greg Bourgeois noted that defraying taxes immediately added to the value of a home. Defraying $10,896 in taxes – even with the city’s contribution capped at $2,000 per year –would ultimately add another $150,000 in value to a high-priced home, Bourgeois said.


Baker said she could think of no one who values historic homes more than she does – as much but not more – and yet she could not support the wide swath of homes being presented as historic. Clearly, but not directly, she referred to Deaderick, who has made a business out of compiling historical facts on homes that are now being presented for historic landmark designation.


Sadowsky insisted that at least 50 East Austin properties have been recognized for landmark designation. Commissioner Patricia Seeger, however, agreed with Baker that high-priced homes are often getting tax relief that the city’s less affluent residents could never get.


“Based on that, I can’t support this abatement,” Seeger said.


Baker noted that the city’s original historic landmark ordinance, passed in 1974, contained no carrots as incentives. At the same time, the guidelines for historic designation were often more stringent when it came to qualifying homes. Still, she said, relevant homes should be “head and shoulders above” others in the city.


Commissioner Donna Tiemann agreed with the comment and suggested that the city might need to come up with a new mechanism, or plan, to encourage participation. In local historic districts – which have yet to take off – those benefits include a freeze on property to pre-improvement property values.


ZAP agreed with Baker that the first two homes – both represented by Deaderick – had no significant architectural or historical value, although Baker complimented Deaderick on her documentation.


Both cases – the Pickle House on Murray Lane and the Fitzgerald-Upchurch-Wilkerson House on Windsor Road — failed to gain the commission’s recommendation for historical designation, with all commissioners voting against. The applicants will now have to ask for City Council approval without the usual endorsement of the commission.

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