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Homeowners protest AISD suspension of historic zoning tax abatements

Wednesday, September 8, 2010 by Josh Rosenblatt

August was a busy month in the continuing saga over of historic zoning.

 

First, Austin City Council, in response to a record number of homeowners applying for and receiving historic zoning status, voted Aug. 19 to temporarily limit the number of properties the Historic Landmark Commission would consider to three a month. Four days later, the Austin Independent School District’s Board of Trustees voted to suspend the school district’s participation in tax abatements for historic structures for the upcoming year.

 

Response to the school board’s decision has been heated. Last week, In Fact Daily obtained copies of several letters sent by property owners to the AISD board requesting that they reconsider their decision. For many, the tax-abatement suspension will not only damage efforts to preserve the city’s heritage but is a refusal on the part of the AISD to honor a commitment it made to its citizens.

 

One homeowner who wrote to the AISD board, Frances Thompson, told In Fact Daily that she feels that AISD isn’t keeping up its end of the bargain made when she and her husband secured historic status for their home in 2006. “I feel for the school districts, but it’s a partnership and we’re preserving the fabric of the neighborhood,” she said. “AISD didn’t talk to any of us to see what impact the decision may have on us.”

 

A spokesman for AISD, meanwhile, said its decision was a matter of simple economics. In a letter of response, Melvin Waxler, general counsel for the district, wrote that AISD – like many other districts around the country – is “trying to figure out how to extend the reach of its scarce resources during (a period) of declining revenues.”

 

“Under these circumstances,” he continued, “and in light of the fact that most school districts throughout the state do not grant these exemptions even in better economic times, the district has eliminated this long-standing exemption (for the coming year).”

 

But homeowners are feeling the pinch of bad economic times as well, said Thompson, and need the abatements in order to maintain the historic integrity of their homes. Thompson said her home, a Tarrytown property built in 1929, was “abandoned” and “uninhabitable” when she and her husband purchased it in 2003. Since then they have gone through the expensive process of rehabilitating the home. It’s a process, she said, that never ends and that doesn’t come cheap. “We’re constantly maintaining things we wouldn’t have to deal with if we had bought a newer home,” she said.

 

But she and her husband see maintaining the historic look of the house as a way to maintain a link to their neighborhood’s past and make a commitment to the city. Thompson views the tax abatements as the city’s recognition of this commitment.

 

“We could not have not taken on such a project – and cannot continue to maintain our historic home – without this financial recognition,” she wrote. “We have held up our end of Austin’s historic preservation, and we are grateful that the city does the same by recognizing out efforts.”

 

Sidney Lock, owner of the Adams House Bed & Breakfast in Hyde Park and another supporter of the tax abatement system, wrote that she was concerned that AISD’s decision “was made very quickly and without any feedback from those affected.”

 

“I wonder what’s going to happen with property owners who have had these abatements for a long time,” Lock told In Fact Daily. “I doubt they had budgeted for a whopping property tax increase. It’s going to impact people very severely. … For AISD to just say, ‘We’re not going to do that anymore,’ it seemed very arbitrary.”

 

Thompson agrees. “I understand the burden AISD has but it would have been nice if the trustees had made it a little more of a discussion rather than a surprise,” she said.

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