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Heritage Society presents recommendations for landmark ordinance

Thursday, February 24, 2011 by Kimberly Reeves

The Heritage Society of Austin has begun the job of courting the Austin Neighborhoods Council with its proposal to adjust the city’s heritage landmark program and, specifically, residential tax abatements.

 

August Harris, the Heritage Society’s 2nd vice president, was given only 10 minutes to speak, and he rushed through a presentation of the society’s proposed changes to the city’s historic landmark ordinance, which is going through its third review in recent years. The recommendations fall into two categories: strengthening the administration of incentives and adjustments to the incentives themselves.

 

Adjustments to the incentive structure for residential properties, likely to be of the most interest to Council, still appear to be a work in progress. The Heritage Society wants back indexing of abatements to a property’s value so that the value of abatements would go up or down in a meaningful way.

 

“If you have a fixed incentive of ‘x’ dollars, that doesn’t have the same effect 10 years from now as it does today,” Harris said. “You want something that changes as the economy changes so it still has meaning.”

 

Proposals to adjust the incentive structure – that mysterious combination of land value and home value – are still being studied, Harris said. Incentives should be capped at $750,000, he continued, which is the current average value of “historic” homes in the city. And the Heritage Society is still looking at the abatement mix chosen when the ordinance was last rewritten: 50 percent of the land value and 100 percent of the improvements on a particular lot.

 

The Heritage Society also wants to add a rehabilitation incentive for those structures that are considered contributing structures in historical districts. Consistent application of a capped abatement across all jurisdictions, including the Austin Independent School District, could reduce the overall cost of the residential abatement program by 50 percent, according to the group.

 

AISD opted out of the historic abatement program this year, although Harris said the district only wound up with an extra $95,000 because the state keeps much of the money collected by the district.

 

Rudy Williams of the Blackshear neighborhood approached Harris outside the meeting to express his concern that the abatement program is not being structured in a way to encourage more participation in East Austin. Abatements could be highly valuable to older East Side residents who may live in a landmark-worthy home but have never pursued landmark status.

 

“Flyers ought to be stuffed in bills, the same way you send out flyers about changing light bulbs or getting insulation,” Williams said. “A lot of our people are living on fixed incomes these days, and their tax bills are rising. They need someone to say them, ‘Hey, you’ve lived in this home for 75 years, and you might be eligible for a tax break if your home is historic.’”

 

Lynn Team, who has worked with the Heritage Society on many of its residential proposals, said local historic districts are a key to preserving neighborhoods. In recent months, local preservationists have met with various city departments, urging them to use federal home rehabilitation funding for both sustainability/repair and preservation of the city’s historic fabric.

 

Harris will be back at the Austin Neighborhoods Council next month with a more nuanced resolution for the group to consider. Last night, he said the Heritage Society supports a number of suggestions to improve the historic preservation abatement program’s administration: strengthening annual inspections, adding an annual inspection fee that would be devoted to an enterprise fund to provide more resources to historic preservation, raising the bar on the compliance under certificate of appropriateness standards, and making sure that the city meets certified local government status to qualify for more federal funding grants.

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