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Place 3 Council candidates weigh in on historic landmark ordinance

Monday, April 4, 2011 by Josh Rosenblatt

If all goes according to plan, next week the Historic Landmark Commission will at long last vote on changes to the city’s historic landmark ordinance. Those changes, which were originally supposed to be ready at the beginning of the year, could go before the Council by the end of the month and will likely be a source of debate in the city for years to come.


Under the terms of the current landmark program, 100 percent of home values and 50 percent of land values are exempted on properties zoned historic. Those exemptions, plus those granted to commercial properties, cost the city and other local taxing entities $4.2 million in 2009. 


So, In Fact Daily asked the four candidates in the race for City Council Place 3 how they view the historic landmark issue.


For example, alterations to the ordinance could have an enormous impact on budgetary decisions the Council makes going forward. Two other local taxing entities — the Austin Independent School District and Austin Community College — have already opted out of the program, which provides generous tax exemptions (up to 50 percent of annual tax bill) for historic homes. For incumbent Council Member Randi Shade, that’s enough of a reason for the city to take a good, long look at the program.


“The city’s role as gatekeeper has been seriously called into question when the other taxing authorities are pulling out of the program,” Shade told In Fact Daily. Shade, who last summer co-sponsored the item directing staff to come up with recommendations to change the ordinance, said that she has become “much more judicious” in her assessment of historic applications in the last few months.


“Since December (2009) I’ve requested that these historic cases be presented to Council for deliberation rather than pass on consent,” she said. “Some applications have been voted down that may have before passed on the consent agenda.”


The historic landmark program is important, Shade said, but is in need of improvements. “There was a level of subjectivity that was making it hard for the public at large to see how they were benefiting,” Shade said. “Every time you take a house off the tax roll, every one of us is paying for it.”


“I’m in favor of preservation, I’m in favor of neighborhood preservation, and I’m definitely in favor of preserving the homes that tourists want to see and future generations want to learn from. But I don’t know if our current program is actually achieving that.”


Place 3 challenger and former Planning Commissioner Kathie Tovo disagrees with Shade’s assessment.


“I’m a big supporter of the historic preservation program we have here in the city,” she said. “I think Austin would be a very different place if we didn’t have a program that recognizes the importance of the city’s history. Changes are good, but our community needs to know that the program we have has worked. I will be a strong advocate for the program as a Council member.”


One of the few changes to the ordinance Tovo said she would like to see would be in the area of geographic and cultural parity. “I do think it’s important that we have more geographic diversity,” she said. “I’m glad the city is putting emphasis on how we can get the word out to communities across the city that we want to see landmark applications emerging from their neighborhoods. As a city we need to recognize the value of the histories of working classes houses, too.” The majority of landmarked homes are in West Austin.


And despite the concerns of many in the city who, like Shade, feel the program has a detrimental economic impact on the city, Tovo believes historic zoning can actually help the city’s economic situation.


“Studies done in other places have indicated that landmark structures increase property values in an area, so I would argue that a successful landmark program can be a useful economic development strategy,” she said.


The two other candidates in the Place 3 race – Kris Bailey and former Council Member Max Nofziger – admitted less familiarity with the historic landmark issue but stressed the need to make sure it is the best possible program for the economic vitality of the city.


Bailey worries that historic zoning puts unfair tax pressure on those in the city whose houses are not landmarks. “I believe everyone should be taxed equally throughout the city in regard to what their fair share of the taxes would be,” he said. “If landmark status is being used for residences that people are living in, then I don’t believe in tax exemptions. And if people are applying for historic landmark status strictly for a tax break, I don’t really see the point of the ordinance.”


Nofziger, meanwhile, said his biggest concern as a Council member would be striking a balance between the cultural and economic interests of the city. “I’m a history buff so I’m very interested in the preservation of Austin’s history, but I need to look at how that deprives the city of income,” he said.


Nofziger, who is promising to reduce city spending, said he would look into offsetting the money spent on historic zoning with spending cuts in other parts of the city’s budget.

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