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Council postpones historic zoning code amendments to study revised plan

Friday, August 6, 2010 by Josh Rosenblatt

On Thursday, Council postponed consideration of an ordinance to amend the city’s historic zoning policy in order to evaluate recommendations made earlier in the week by the Heritage Society of Austin. Those recommendations, which were sent to Council members on Monday, would dramatically alter the way the city determines the competitive merit of historic zoning applications.


On June 10, Council approved a resolution directing the city manager to process an amendment to the city code generally limiting the number of owner-initiated and Historic Landmark Commission-initiated historic landmark applications to three per month and the number of owner-initiated and Historic Landmark Commission-initiated nominations in a national register or local historic district to one per month.


Council hopes to both to limit the number of homes granted historic status (and its generous tax abatements) each year and to ease staff workload. 

Last week, by Council request, the Planning Commission, the Historic Landmark Commission, and the Planning Commission’s Codes and Ordinances Committee made recommendations to the proposed code amendment. Those recommendations included allowing carryover from month to month for an average of three owner-initiated applications a month and further investigating ways to create more diversity in the types of properties nominated for designation and in the areas of the city those properties are located.

The recommendations made by the Heritage Society on Monday are more radical and substantive. The first states that the city would “set no limit to the number of owner-initiated applications that could be received, but set the limit for the number of cases that the HLC could recommend to a maximum of 3 per month, to be selected from among all existing applications on the basis of merit.”

The society’s second recommendation would “extend the time limits for scheduling hearings on these applications to a maximum of 180 days, for the purpose of allowing HLC to manage its work by grouping hearings and making competitive merit determinations from a larger pool.”

In her letter to Council, Heritage Society of Austin Executive Director Jacqui Schraad wrote, “The purpose of these two changes … would be to enable the Landmark Commission to develop a cyclical approach to handling owner-initiated cases, in order to improve the quality of the applications as well as to achieve a more efficient use of staff and commission members’ time.” 

For Council Member Bill Spelman, who moved to postpone yesterday’s public hearing along with Council Member Randi Shade, the Heritage Society’s recommendations are valuable enough that they could end up being part of the permanent changes made to the city’s historic zoning policy. The Council is looking for both those permanent alterations and temporary “stop-gap” measures to last through the end of the year.

“What the Heritage Society is proposing is a much more fine-grained analysis of each property that is up for consideration,” Spelman told In Fact Daily. He said that he would like to see a scoring-rubric system applied to the historic zoning system, rather than the current method by which any property that meets a certain number of criteria is granted historic status. “Currently, there is no relative ranking, no subjective ranking for determining the historical importance of a property,” he said.

He said that the recommendations made by the Heritage Society could serve as a “means of giving the Historic Landmark Commission the authority they need to do better examinations of each of these properties.”

Others at the city, however, have concerns that the Heritage Society recommendations, with their lack of limits on the numbers of applications accepted and their competitive merit determinations, will actually mean more work for city staff and commissions, rather than less.

“We already have a process,” Jerry Rusthoven of the Planning and Development Review Department told In Fact Daily. “This creates a process that decides who gets to the process. We thought the whole idea of the code amendments was to limit the number of cases because they felt like we had too many. We thought they were looking at just three coming in the door. This states that everyone comes in the door but only three get recommended. So it’s not really helping us with workload issues.” 

The Council will take up the issue again at its meeting on August 19.

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