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Despite stiff opposition, Council OKs Hyde Park district on first reading

Monday, November 22, 2010 by Josh Rosenblatt

After many years in the making, the proposed Hyde Park Local Historic District came before Council last week, but consideration was barely got under way when members learned of a possible valid petition opposing the measure filed by a group of neighborhood residents.


Jerry Rusthoven of the city’s Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department informed the Council that city staff had received the opposition petition from Hyde Park resident Kevin Heyburn the day before but that they had not had a chance to determine whether enough people had signed the petition for it to be considered valid. Under city standards, 20 percent of homeowners within the proposed district have to sign a petition to make it valid. A valid petition forces Council to achieve a supermajority – six votes – in order to approve historic district status.


In the case of the Hyde Park Local Historic District, a supermajority would mean a clean sweep, as Council Member Bill Spelman, a Hyde Park resident, recused himself from the process.


Rather than postpone discussion of the item until January, as requested by the petitioners, Council members chose instead to hear discussion and consider the proposal on first reading only. Meanwhile, staff is counting the petition signatures.


In a letter published in the most recent issue of the Pecan Press, the newsletter of the Hyde Park Neighborhood Association, Heyburn wrote that his concern about the plan doesn’t have to do with a Hyde Park historic district but rather changes he says have been made to the plan since it was first approved by residents in the summer.


“The plan that was voted out of the city’s Planning Commission and currently set for a vote by the City Council on November 18, 2010, is not the same plan 51percent of our neighbors initially supported when backers of the (district) circulated their petition seeking support,” he wrote. “I think the … plan, as it is currently proposed, needs additional work and additional input from those of us who think the plan places too many unnecessary and expensive burdens on home owners in the name of ‘historic preservation.’”


Heyburn told Council that many of the design standards established in the proposed plans would too greatly restrict homeowners’ abilities to repair, rehabilitate, or alter their homes without going through onerous city approval processes. 


“I’m simply saying based on my survey and conversation with almost 170 owners in the district, that there are real concerns and I believe a postponement will allow for further discussion to come up with better plan,” he said.


But Karen McGraw of the Hyde Park Neighborhood Association took issue with Heyburn’s claim, saying that the four-year process to develop the district plan was one of “participation and notification” in Hyde Park. Owners had “every opportunity in the world to participate,” she said. “The neighborhood association has tried to tweak the plan to accommodate these new concerns.”


Such concerns were probably inevitable. Under the terms of a Local Historic District plan, homeowners are provided with tax abatements to promote rehabilitation and maintenance of contributing “historic” buildings. In return, they have to agree to design standards for new construction and modification of existing buildings. Under the Hyde Park plan, for example, certain porches would not be allowed to be screened, exterior lighting fixtures would be regulated, and certain types of additions will be forbidden, etc.


Council has been pushing local historic districts recently, looking to cut down on the number of individual properties applying for historic rezoning. In a local historic district, owner-occupied residential properties are eligible for a seven-year property tax abatement on the additional value of a home after work has been done to rehabilitate it to historic (contributing) status. Individual historically zoned properties, on the other hand, are eligible every year for an annual 100 percent property tax exemption on the assessed value of the entire historic structure, with a maximum city exemption of the greater of $2,000 or 50 percent of the city tax levy.


Thursday’s public hearing went on for several hours, with representatives from both sides arguing about the merits of historic preservation versus property rights. Those in favor of the plan pointed out that it will reduce demolitions and help preserve the character of the neighborhood.


“We don’t own these homes,” one speaker said. “We are their caretakers.”


On the other side, those opposed to the newer design standards spoke about “excessive intrusions” into property owners’ rights and the “usurpation of property rights.”


Resident Kenneth Dion even referenced testimonials he claimed Hyde Park residents had supplied to him saying the Hyde Park Neighborhood Association was “out of control.” He showed Council a letter from one property owner claiming personal abuse and threats of retaliation. 


The heated rhetoric was too much for Council Member Randi Shade, who said that she is “very much in favor of local historic districts” but was “uncomfortable” with the animosity she was hearing from both sides.


“The neighborhood is made up of people, even more important than the buildings,” she said. “That’s what contributes to the culture. And the buildings are part of the sense of the place, and no question there’s a strong need for preservation. But it’s very uncomfortable for me to see some of the comments tonight.”


Council Member Laura Morrison echoed that concern. “We’re all caretakers of our neighborhoods and the historic nature of our communities,” she said. “That’s what this is all about. I hope everyone remembers it’s about wanting to make the community a better place” as discussion continues.


Council voted 6-0 in favor of approving the district on first reading and set Dec. 16. as the date for the next public hearing.

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