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Planning Commission backs changes to Historic Landmark Ordinance

Thursday, December 15, 2011 by Kimberly Reeves

The Planning Commission signed off on proposed changes to the Historic Landmark Ordinance that will go to Council today, including shifting all historic zoning cases to the Planning Commission.

 

This choice would take historic cases out of the purview of the Zoning and Platting Commission, which is chaired by former city preservation officer Betty Baker. Baker also led at least two prior re-drafts of the historic preservation ordinance.

 

Commissioner Mandy Dealey, a former chair of the Heritage Society of Austin, made the motion. She said she did it at the request of the Old Enfield neighborhood.

 

“It makes more sense to have one body to look at these, rather than parsing these out between two land commissions,” Dealey told her colleagues. “We get most of them anyway.”

 

The suggestion, which applied to a separate section of code, was rolled into the final motion, which passed on a vote of 8-0, with Commissioner Dave Anderson absent from Tuesday night’s meeting.

 

Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky posed three specific questions for a vote by the commission. Those included a choice of a formula for property tax exemptions, which the Planning Commission voted to maintain at 50 percent exemption on land and 100 percent exemption on structure.

 

The commission also agreed that exemptions should be indexed to the consumer price index and re-evaluated every three years. And the criterion of “neighborhood value” will now be included in the definition of “community value” when it came to designating a structure as historic.

 

ZAP, on the other hand, resisted most of the changes proposed by the Historic Landmark Commission’s Operations Committee, saying the commission had not had sufficient time to review the proposal. The commission suggested a 90-day postponement, which would push consideration past year’s end and fail to impact the upcoming tax year.

 

At Planning Commission, Commissioner Saundra Kirk urged quick passage of the changes, noting that the proposal had been vetted and it needed to be approved so other taxing entities could also act.

 

During his presentation to the commission, Sadowsky noted proposed changes in three areas: the amount of tax exemptions and potential caps; tightening up the designation criteria for landmarks and local historic districts; and inserting demolition delays into the local historic district process, so that homeowners would have to seek a certificate of appropriateness for contributing structures if a local historic district application is in the pipeline.

 

Under the proposal, tax abatements for owner-occupied landmarks would be capped at $2,500 each year, up from the 2004 rewrite that allowed either $2,000 or 50 percent of existing city taxes, whichever was greater.

 

Council, in its August resolution on the issue, had proposed lumping land and structure values under the same umbrella and allowing an abatement to apply to the combined value. The math, however, provided little benefit to more modest historic properties. The recommendation was to maintain the 50/100 split that has existed in city code since 1977.

 

All structures designated historic will be grandfathered until the property changes hands. One of the earliest controversies around the changes was whether existing landmarks would or would not be constrained by the changes proposed by the city.

 

In the area of designation criteria, the recommendations will be to require a petition of 51 percent of land owners to designate a local historic district, rather than giving owners of multiple parcels more clout.

 

The Operations Committee also recommended strengthening the requirement for a high degree of integrity on the property, with integrity being defined by the National Register of Historic Places. The significance of architecture, and associations with prominent craftsmen, will be emphasized. And the definition of historic structures has been extended to “vernacular” or “utilitarian” structures, which Sadowsky said would allow warehouses to be designated as historic.

 

“Under the historical significance, we really want to emphasize associations that are long-standing and significant, and not just simply Stevie-Ray-Vaughn-slept-on-the-couch-here-for-three-nights so it’s significant,” Sadowsky said.

 

ZAP considered “long-standing” to be a vague term and suggested that a specific length of time, 10 years, be applied to significance. The Historic Landmark Commission, however, disagreed, saying it did not want to be tied to a particular time frame to establish significance.

 

The most controversial proposal was whether community value could be, as Council suggested, something equivalent to neighborhood value. ZAP wanted to omit the neighborhood value, saying that community value should be city-wide.

 

Jeff Jack, the ex-officio member of the Planning Commission, questioned how this could lend significance to actual places like Clarksville. Planning Commission members appeared to agree with him and supported the concept of neighborhood value as a way to measure significance.

 

Maureen Metteauer of the Heritage Society of Austin was the only speaker during the hearing, reading a letter into the record that expressed general support for the changes. Those changes, Metteauer said, came after two years of sustained effort by stakeholders and interested partners.

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