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ZAP approves task force recommendations on historic landmark limits

Thursday, July 22, 2010 by Kimberly Reeves

Recommendations on short-term limits to historic landmarks sailed through the Zoning and Platting Commission Tuesday night, although Chair Betty Baker firmly rejected a recommendation by a new task force that would put those limits under a sunset provision by the end of the year.


Baker, of all people, might have been expected to have more to say about changes to the historic ordinance, given that she chaired the two most recent task forces that revised the city’s historic preservation measures. She served as the city’s original historic preservation officer when the ordinance was passed and often appears not to have forgotten a single detail from her past cases.


However, Baker limited her comments this week to rejecting the proposed sunset provision, which was intended to sunset short-term limits when the larger committee reached a longer-term tax abatement solution.


Baker was skeptical. Homeowners would find whatever existing loopholes are created in the ordinance and exploit them for personal benefit, intended or unintended, she told Jerry Rusthoven, of the city’s Planning and Zoning Department, and her fellow ZAP commissioners.


“I thoroughly disagree,” Baker said. “When there’s money involved, there’s usually people standing in line to get it.”


Rusthoven presented the short-term recommendations to ZAP, since Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky was upstairs addressing the Codes and Ordinances Committee of the Planning Commission at the same time. The initial recommendations, which will be presented to Council on August 5, will limit historic landmark cases to three per month.


That policy is intended to avoid late-night Historic Landmark Commission meetings, which tend to grow in frequency as cases stack up at the end of the tax year, or even in anticipation of future landmark designation limitations, Rusthoven noted.


Last December, Council took on 27 historic landmark cases in a single meeting, which was essentially a year’s worth of work at one sitting. That was the point at which the ordinance was sent back to the HLC for further review.

The proposed limit of three historic landmark cases per month will spread the caseload for the historic preservation office, Rusthoven said. Exceptions will be made for cases initiated by the commission, demolition-by-neglect cases, and those cases that are initiated because of demolition or relocation permits. Public-owned and city-owned buildings would also be excluded.


In addition, the task force’s recommendation would limit landmark cases within local historic landmark districts to no more than one per month. The number of local historic districts could grow in coming years.


The task force, chaired by Historic Landmark Commission Chair Laurie Limbacher and comprised of the Historic Landmark Operations Commission’s members, will be making long-term recommendations by the end of the year.


Already, the committee has talked about, and abandoned, the concept of putting cases onto the Historic Landmark Commission’s agenda based on merit rather than the traditional first-filed, first-out philosophy of the past. The new proposal was abandoned as being too complicated, Rusthoven said.


Limbacher’s committee is moving forward with a review of current historic landmark cases, intended to recommend putting more focus on distributing landmarks across the city. Currently, most of the city’s landmarks are among upscale homes in wealthier neighborhoods near downtown.


Limbacher has offered her own work product, as a city contractor on the downtown neighborhood plan, to begin collecting information on existing incentives in various cities around the country. The task force will continue to expand that database to include new details of various programs.


Ultimately, the committee would like to map existing landmark structures on a single three-dimensional map, including information on the structures’ histories, associations, and architectural value to the community.


The committee is in the process of reviewing ordinances in other progressive cities and comparing those to Austin. Limbacher’s own work may be the basis for a future database for the city and could guide recommendations to Council.


ZAP unanimously approved the task force’s recommendations, with Patricia Seeger absent.

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