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Commissions make historic zoning code amendment recommendations

Monday, August 2, 2010 by Josh Rosenblatt

The long road toward a new historic preservation zoning policy got a little shorter last week, when the Planning Commission threw their two cents into the discussion of proposed code amendments. Their recommendations, along with those already approved by the Historic Landmark Commission and the Planning Commission’s Codes and Ordinances Committee, will be presented to Council on August 5.

On June 10, Council approved a resolution directing the city manager to process an amendment to the city code limiting the number of owner-initiated and Historic Landmark Commission-initiated historic landmark applications to three per month except in the case of nominations initiated by the commission in response to a request for a demolition or relocation permit.

The amendment would also limit the number of owner-initiated and Historic Landmark Commission-initiated nominations in a national register or local historic district to one per month except in the case of nominations initiated by the commission in response to a demolition/relocation permit request.

Back in December of last year, Council grudgingly approved 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, both to limit the number of homes granted that status (and its generous tax abatements) each year and to spread the rezoning wealth to neighborhoods outside West Austin.

Also at that time, several Council members voiced their concern over the issue of third-party agents guiding properties through the process on a contingency-fee basis.

Also last week, the Historic Landmark Commission (HLC) made its recommendations on both parts of the resolution. In the first part, they recommended making the following exempt from the three-per-month limitation:

  1. HLC-initiated cases for any reason
  2. Local historic district nominations
  3. Demolition-by-neglect cases
  4. Cases involving city-owned property

In addition, they recommended that the cases for each month’s agenda be decided on a first-come-first-served basis.

The Codes and Ordinances Committee voted to support those recommendations with two added provisos:

  1. Further investigate ways to create more diversity in the types of properties nominated for designation and in geographic areas by December 31.
  2. Clarify that the limitation is on owner-occupied residential properties only.

As to the second part of the resolution, concerning properties located in national registers or local historic districts, the HLC recommended that the provision limiting the number of owner-initiated cases should expire December 31, 2011 and that paid preparers should be prohibited from entering into contingency-fee arrangements for owner-initiated cases, provided the Law Department sees no problem with such a prohibition.

Last week, the Planning Commission members made a series of recommendations themselves. Commission Member Mandy Dealey said that she would support all the changes made by the Codes and Ordinances Committee provided there were a revision made to limit the number of cases not to three a month but to 36 a year, thereby freeing up space for more properties in a given month should all the slots in that month not be filled.

Even with such a change, however, Dealey said she didn’t think the proposed code amendments were a good idea. Dealey is president of the Heritage Society of Austin.

“I really hate this,” she said. “I think it’s extremely poor preservation policy and I’m not even sure it’s very good fiscal policy. It doesn’t in any way address the benefits of preservation or what it is we want to accomplish through a preservation program. But it is what it is and what we have to deal with.”

Fellow heritage society member Michael Holleran told the commission that the group would support the amendments only as a “temporary measure.” “We are not in favor of it without an expiration date. We don’t think it’s a very good permanent solution for the program,” he said.

Holleran also asked the commission to consider recommending making the owner-initiated process a merit-based, rather than first-come-first-served, system. “If the city’s going to designate three properties which will be protected, including incentives that have a budgetary impact, why on earth would you pick them in any other way than the three best properties you’ve got that month?” he said.

In the end the commission voted unanimously, 8-0, to support all the recommendations of the Codes and Ordinances Committee, with the following changes: striking out the language about the law department related to the contingency-fee arrangements and supporting the prohibition against those arrangements “straight out”; recommending that the limitations expire no later than December 31, 2011, so an assessment can be made as to their value; allowing carryover from month to month for an average of three owner-initiated applications a month; recommending that standard advice be given to applicants for subsequent H zonings that any discretionary tax abatements would be subject to change.

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