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Initial reactions mixed for proposed changes to historic zoning process

Tuesday, May 25, 2010 by Michael Kanin

Reactions from city officials and others to a proposed series of changes to the way the city determines historic landmark zoning are a mixed bag, ranging from positive to skeptical. Since last week’s release of a memo that detailed staff suggestions, In Fact Daily spoke with a several officials whose responses to the idea are decidedly mixed.


The memo came from Greg Guernsey, the director of the city’s Planning and Development Review Department. In it, he outlined three possible adjustments to the city’s review of landmark cases. He recommended that City Council members adopt the first two: a hard cap on both the number of “owner-initiated historic landmark cases” that would limit such petitions to “three per month” and the “number of owner-initiated historic landmark designations which are located in the National Register or Local Historic Districts,” a limit that would allow only “one per month per district.”


Guernsey did not recommend a more direct proposal that would have limited “the amount of property tax exemptions for the year to a fixed amount.” 


Council Member Randi Shade said she sees the staff recommendations as “a first step, so we don’t see 30 applications from one part of town coming in at once,” as they did last December. “It makes sense to try to limit the numbers that we’re looking at per year,” she said and to try to get better geographic representation


“I don’t believe it’s arbitrary and I don’t believe it’s the only thing we should be looking at,” Shade said. “We will be looking at some of the other issues as well but they will take more time to evaluate …this would be a way to slow the pipeline down and be more methodical in looking at all the other issues.”


Betty Baker, chair of the Zoning and Platting Commission, said that she felt that the changes were “perhaps a little overdue.” She added that the misuse of what she called the “necessary” tool of historic landmark status could lead to an intolerable loss of tax revenue.


“We can’t afford this,” she said, later noting that “we have got to be more prudent.”


Baker has had substantial experience with historic preservation in Austin. A former director of Heritage Marketing and Visitor’s Center with the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau, Baker started working for the city in 1974 dealing with historic landmarks.


From her current position as ZAP chair, Baker has recently been recently critical of expanding the number of West Austin homeowners getting tax breaks. On April 6, that body rejected applications for the Fitzgerald-Upchurch Wilkerson House and the Judge David J. and Birdie Pickle House. Those petitions were later approved by the City Council (see In Fact Daily, April 30).


Still, though she supports the proposed changes, Baker suggested that the City Council has a hard road before they settle the historic landmark question. “I think (they have) really got a tiger by the tail,” she said. Her concern, she added, was based in her belief that there might be quite a debate as things move forward. 


Baker further noted that if the Council did pass the changes, its move could be a harbinger of things to come at the county level.


Council Member Laura Morrison called Guernsey’s suggestions “a reasonable way to spread out the work that is required.” For her, though, the proposed changes don’t deal with some critical issues. She noted that, even with the suggestions, the city still lacks an active preservation plan and that the last update of its historic resources survey came in 1984. 


“(I’m) concerned that we preserve the integrity of our historic fabric across the city,” she said.


Morrison said that there has been some movement on a program run from the University of Texas that could result in a user-driven historical landmark database. But, she added, the grant that the effort runs on isn’t on par with the larger amount of funding that would be needed to conduct that drive.


As for the question of lost tax revenue, Morrison called the historic properties a “driver in and of itself.” She noted that though tax revenue is important, “(the) flipside of having historic resources … is an economic engine for the city.”


Heritage Society of Austin Executive Director Jacqui Schraad said that her group hadn’t yet had a chance to issue a formal opinion of the changes. She noted that, overall, their “goals are to make sure this program is sustainable.” 


According to its website, the Heritage Society “has been Austin’s leading voice for the preservation of historic buildings and places.” Among other advocacy pushes, it has requested that the Council direct an economic analysis of the city’s preservation program.


Joe Arriaga, a member of the Historic Landmark Commission, the first commission to hear requests for historic zoning, said, “I’ve got some reservations about the proposed changes. I expressed some of those reservations when they were first presented to the commission a while back.” He and other commissioners will have further opportunities to express themselves on the issue.

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