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Commission set to consider changes to historic landmark program

Monday, April 11, 2011 by Josh Rosenblatt

Nearly a year after City Council passed a resolution directing the city manager and the Historic Landmark Commission to come up with recommendations to improve the city’s historic landmark program, the commission is set to vote on those recommendations this afternoon.


Should Council adopt those recommendations, it could limit the tax exemption on historic properties to $2000 and save the city more than $110,000 in annual revenue. 


The recommendations the full commission will consider today represent the work of staff and the commission’s Operations Committee, made up of Laurie Limbacher, Joe Arriaga, John Rosato, and alternate member Patti Hansen. In a draft document released last Monday, those groups propose changes to the program’s designation criteria, designation process, tax-incentive structure, and geographic and economic diversity.


Perhaps the biggest issue for critics of the historic landmark program is tax exemptions. Currently, owners of historic properties are granted an exemption by the city equaling 100 percent of the value of the structure and 50 percent of the value of the land. The maximum city exemption is the greater of $2000 or 50 percent of the city tax levy. According to city documents, that cap only applies to properties worth more than $800,000.


In the draft document, the Operations Committee recommends establishing a tax exemption cap of $2700. That cap would be phased in over time.


Staff, meanwhile, recommends getting rid of the current bifurcated valuation system and simply allowing an exemption on 50 percent of the total value of the property, land and building both.


In addition, staff recommends capping the maximum exemption for residential landmarks at $2000. Currently, there are 105 owner-occupied historic landmarks with an exemption over $2,000. Eleven of those have an exemptions worth between $2,000 and $2,200, 16 have exemptions between $2,200 and $2,500, and 20 have exemptions between $2,500 and $3,000. 


In other words, 58 of those 105 landmarks would see an increase of more than $1,000 in their city taxes. Capping the exemption at $2000 would save the city approximately $110,167 on owner-occupied houses.


Last week, the city’s historic preservation officer, Steve Sadowsky, told the Operations Committee that the $2000 cap strikes the right balance between the economic fairness of the program and the expectations of property owners. “Capping at less than $2000 would present a great hardship for a lot of people,” Sadowsky said.


As for designation criteria, the committee recommends retaining the program’s current standards but, in the hopes of making the process more accessible to lower-income homeowners, advocates protecting “more common buildings and those without high-style architecture from demolition, such as the bungalows and cottages of working-class areas of the city.”


City staff, meanwhile, recommends several changes to the criteria, many having to do with raising the architectural and historical standards of eligible properties.


For example, staff writes that buildings should not just be 50 years old, as the standard reads now; instead, their period of historical significance should be at least 50 years ago, as well. Architecturally, buildings can’t just serve as “representative” examples of an architect’s or artisan’s work; they must be “outstanding” examples.


The groups also address the issue of Local Historic Districts, which many see as a reasonable alternative to individual historic landmarks.


The committee, pointing out that some in the city have found the Local Historic District designation process too onerous, recommends “the establishment of a fund for neighborhood groups and other nominating parties to hire professional consultants to perform survey and inventory of buildings within the district, and research and write the history and context of the district and of several contributing buildings within the district.”


Perhaps more significantly, individual members of the committee recommend lowering the threshold of support required in the historic district nomination from the owners of 51 percent of the land to 41 percent.


But staff argues that the entire percentage system as it’s currently set up leads to inequities. They argue that the provision requiring owners of 51 percent of the land within a district to support historic designation puts a disproportionate amount of voting power in the hands of larger landowners. Instead, staff recommends that the requirement for an affirmative showing of support be modified to mean a showing of support by 51 percent of the property owners within the district, rather than the owners of 51 percent of the land.


Briefly addressing one of the most resonant complaints about the current historic landmark program — geographic and economic disparity — both staff and the committee recommend either a low-interest loan fund or a loan-assistance program to help lower-income property owners in south and east Austin invest in the necessary rehabilitation and maintenance projects required by the standards of the program.  


In addition to calling for recommendations, the resolution, which Council passed on June 10, 2010, temporarily limited the number of owner-initiated and Historic Landmark Commission-initiated landmark applications to three per month. It also limited the numbers of those properties located in National Register or Local Historic districts to just one a month, unless the other two slots are empty.


The Operations Committee supports keeping that three-per-month limit.

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