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Council votes to begin amending historic landmark zoning process

Monday, June 14, 2010 by Josh Rosenblatt

Six months after grudgingly approving historic zoning status for a record number of properties on the understanding that staff would return with recommendations for revising city code on the issue, Council members voted last week to approve a resolution to initiate code amendments to the historic rezoning process.


The resolution initiates and directs the city manager to process amendments to the city code to limit the number of owner-initiated and Historic Landmark Commission-initiated nominations to three per month (36 per year) and the number of nominations that are located in National Register or local historic districts to one per month, unless the other two slots aren’t filled. The resolution provides exceptions for nominations initiated by the commission in response to a request for a demolition or relocation permit.


The resolution also directs the staff to work with the Historic Landmark Commission to prepare recommendations to limit the total amount of property tax exemption for each historic property to a fixed dollar amount and prepare an analysis of the economic benefits of historic preservation.


Supporters of historic zoning point to the millions of dollars in economic benefits groups like the Texas Historical Commission claim it brings to Austin. Detractors worry that the preponderance of applications (situated, as they tend to be, mostly in the wealthy western part of the city) dilutes the value of the term “historic landmark,” depletes the city’s tax coffers, and shifts the property tax burden to the poorer east.


All those issues made appearances during yesterday’s debate. During a passionate presentation, Brian Rodgers of Web site described the trend of west Austin homeowners applying for historic status as a “gold rush.”


“Now it’s budget time in Austin and we’re going to hear all about the sacrifices we citizens need to make while you guys are giving money away to mansion owners,” Rodgers told the Council. “I can’t understand why you don’t see the stunning disconnect between granting these wealthy owners, lavishing all these benefits on them in taxes, while ordinary citizens are struggling to make ends meet.”


Developer Richard Hardin also came out strongly against the current historic preservation code, going so far as to call the program “broken.” “What you have are mansions that are being given tax breaks through the historic program that serve no further purpose,” he said.


Hardin then pointed out that the average value of the 50 homes that have received historic landmark status recently (including the 24 that sparked the current reconsideration last December) is approximately $1.5 million. “Where’s the need?” he asked. “Why are these funds being used here when they’re so badly needed elsewhere?”


Even avid supporters of historic preservation conceded that the city’s current approach is flawed. Mandy Dealey, speaking on behalf of the Heritage Society of Austin, told the Council that her group “respectfully urges Council to seize this opportunity to review” the historic landmark process. She did stress, however, that the “measures proposed in the Council resolution do not present good preservation practices and should by no means become a permanent part of the city’s preservation code” and that they should be only temporary measures with a definite expiration date.


But Council Member Laura Morrison was unconvinced by the broadness of the resolution’s language and was worried about “opening up the process willy-nilly.”


She said she was particularly concerned about language that was added to the resolution on Wednesday, which, she said, would open “the whole process up for discussion.”


Council didn’t vote in favor of those changes, but they did allow for amended language to be added from the resolution’s lead sponsor, Council Member Bill Spelman, directing the city manager to “examine historic landmark preservation practices in peer cities and identify best practices for identifying, designating, and ensuring the preservation of historic properties.”


After being assured by Jerry Rusthoven of the city’s Planning and Development Review Department that city staff would have resolution language written concerning monthly limits on the number of cases given consideration by August 5, and the rest of the language (concerning amount caps and the general state of the program) by December 31, Council voted 5-2 in favor of the motion, with Council members Morrison and Sheryl Cole voting no.

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