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City to pay neighborhood’s legal fees in botched historic landmark case

Friday, August 13, 2010 by Michael Kanin

The City of Austin will pick up the tab for $30,000 worth of legal fees that were incurred by the Hyde Park Neighborhood Association in a lawsuit over the historic status of a home on Avenue G. That figure could climb if the owners of that home, known as the Bradford-Nohra house, can convince Judge Rhonda Hurley that they are also entitled to a similar reimbursement.


Hurley’s decision could come as early as next week, when the parties involved in the suit will meet in her courtroom to argue over the particulars of a judgment which, in effect, resets the historic zoning process on the home. At that hearing, the owners of the property and their attorney James McManus, will also seek to include language that will preserve their right to take continuing legal actions against the city and the neighborhood.


These could include allegations that the city’s Historic Landmark Commission—and, in fact, every other board and commission serving at the time—were not legally seated.


This week also, Sylvia Nohra Dudney filed another request with the city for permission to demolish the house. That will now start moving through the system again, triggering more action at the Historic Landmark Commission.


These actions come as only the latest maneuvers in a heated battle over property rights. The Nohra family, which owns the property, would like to tear down the structure that currently sits on it in favor of a set of condos for their family. They have long contested the idea that the house is a historic building. (See In Fact Daily, July 26, 2010) The Nohras also say that they cannot afford the cost of repairs on their aging home.


Hyde Park, meanwhile, contends that the home is a contributing structure to its designation as a National Historic Zone.


City staff has recommended against historic designation because it hasn’t been maintained as a historic structure. Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky has said, “It fails the test of integrity.”


Council Member Randi Shade told In Fact Daily that she has “real concerns” about landmarking the Bradford-Nohra house. “It’s always a big deal to impose zoning against the will of the homeowner who has no ability to do everything necessary to bring it up to the level it would need to be,” she said. “There are a lot of reasons why the staff did not recommend this house . . . but I think when the staff is against it and the owner is against it we need to (have) a very careful consideration.”


Shade then broadened her point to include the city’s zoning process. “The entire historic zoning process is under review right now and I think there are lots of reasons for it,” she said. “One is the perception that there has been abuse of the program, and two (is) that it has been used as a neighborhood planning tool rather than a historic preservation tool.”


As for the Nohras’ situation, she was sympathetic. “This is a really painful experience to have gone through….(I) hoped some kind of compromise could be achieved but I think ultimately there was not a full understanding that its not only about the financial upside for this family,”  Shade said.


With intense pressure from the neighborhood to designate the house historic, the Council voted 7-0 on first reading for historic zoning. However, the homeowners filed suit after that vote and the Hyde Park neighborhood intervened. (See In Fact Daily March 30, 2009; May 22, 2009)


Neither party was a clear winner or loser in this round of court battles. Indeed, Hurley found that a demolition permit that had been issued for the home was delivered in error. She also held that a vote by the Historic Landmark Commission to award historic status to the Bradford-Nohra home was invalid.

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