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Commission pushes historic zoning on unwilling owners

Wednesday, October 27, 2010 by Michael Kanin

The Historic Landmark Commission has moved again to award historic zoning to the Bradford Nohra house, a Hyde Park home that has been at the center of a heated debate over property rights. In nearly the same breath, it also acted to initiate the zoning process for a house on Enfield Road.


Both actions were delivered against the wishes of the homeowners. The former property has been through the bureaucratic ringer, while the latter is just beginning to have its status considered. For each of the homeowners, the city’s historic process seems tilted unfairly away from the rights of property owners.


Their worries come as Austin continues to consider an appropriate balance in its historic zoning program. With recent ordinance changes curbing the number of homes considered in any given month, proponents of historic zoning are facing a tougher battle.


Sylvia Dudney represented the Nohra family in their latest attempt to convince the commission to let them demolish their home. “The only criterion that this house meets (for historic zoning) is the first one, (that it be) at least 50 years old,” she argued. “The remaining criteria fall way short. This house has been modified so many times over the years that the National Register of Historic Places lists this house as noncontributing because of compromise to historic integrity.”


Dudney is the legal stand-in for her mother, Helen Nohra, who still lives in the house with Dudney’s brother Charlie Nohra. The family’s home has become known as the Bradford-Nohra house because of its connection to local paint magnate and Ben-Hur charioteer Dewey Bradford.


The Nohra family originally went before the Historic Landmark and Planning commissions in 2009. After those panels agreed that the house deserved historic designation, the City Council initially signed off as well. Then a lawsuit and an apparent mis-vote by the Historic Landmark body caused a restart to the process.


The family has indicated that it would like to demolish the existing home and replace it with a set of new properties. The revenue from the sale of one of these would finance the entire project.


They have said that they don’t have the roughly $1 million they believe would be required to bring the property up to city standards for historic zoning.


For the Nohras, the change in the rezoning climate could mean better luck as the next set of city entities reviews their case. Next up is the Planning Commission.


If the Nohras receive no relief there, it seems almost certain that the City Council will allow them to demolish the home.


That may be a good sign for David Kelly. Kelly says that his house, a 1930s Tudor revival in Old West Austin, is also too damaged to repair. He’d like to tear it down and replace it with a structure that has a similar appearance.


Landmark commissioners instead elected to go along with Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky’s recommendation to initiate a historic zoning case. The move was made so that Sadowsky could further vet the property for its historical significance.


“It has very significant connections with an influential Jewish rabbi … so I think it’s worth investigating the history of this house a little bit further,” he said.


Kelly told In Fact Daily that he felt as though his case had been affected by the outcome of the Bradford-Nohra hearing. “I get the impression that if you’re actively involved in a community … you can strip property owners of their rights,” he said. “That’s clearly what happened in the (Nohra) case … I think in my case the momentum of the panel was already swayed. They were already in a mood to say that historic preservation takes precedence over property rights no matter what.”


Next up for Kelly will be a hearing at the Landmark Commission, which will decide whether or not to push the zoning application on to City Council.

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