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ZAP sends message to Council on request for high-dollar tax abatement

Tuesday, February 28, 2012 by Elizabeth Pagano

The Zoning and Platting Commission decided against making a recommendation last week on a proposed historic tax abatement for a $2 million home in the Old Enfield neighborhood. In addition, the commission issued a warning about the current direction of the city’s historic landmark structure program.


“There are going to be major problems if this continues as loosely as it’s going now,” said Chair Betty Baker. Baker said she didn’t think that “any of us in here tonight should be supplementing the taxes on a $2 million residence that is not endangered.”


“I have a hard time swallowing that medication,” said Baker, who said she could not support the recommendation “given the information that we have, the system that we have, until these recommendations are perhaps more prudent or perhaps more concerned with not only the program itself, but the financial welfare of this city.”


Addressing the staff member in charge of the historic landmark program, she said, “Mr. Sadowsky, I know there are over 1,200 structures that would qualify just as easily as this one does for historic zoning, and you know it too. We can’t afford it. This is going to have to stop somewhere, and I don’t know where it’s going to stop.”


Vice-Chair Patricia Seeger expressed concern that the current property owners, who purchased the house in 1997,  may not be in need of financial assistance from the city.


“We have property owners that are having a very difficult time paying their property taxes, and then we’re looking at giving almost a $2 million house abatement valued at almost $20,000,” said Seeger. “ I thought the original motive for creating historic homes was to help the homeowners who really couldn’t afford to keep up their historic homes – to give them some money that they could keep up their homes. I don’t think the present owners, if they could afford the house, need a lot of tax dollars. And it possibly should go to the less fortunate, in helping them with their tax bills.


Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky explained that the owners’ financial standing was not a factor in making a recommendation that a property be given historic designation.


“Our tax exemption program applies across the board. So we don’t have a criterion that says ‘Your house is worth this, so you don’t get the tax exemption, even though it’s significant,’” said Sadowsky. “Yes, this is one of the very high-end houses in the city. But its historical significance and its architectural significance are still paramount to, in our mind, any consideration of the amount of the tax exemption.”


“We would apply the same rules to any house in South Austin or East Austin that met these same criteria for designation,” said Sadowsky.


The property, located at 2300 Windsor Road, was built in 1935 and is an example of “Adamesque Colonial Revival.” It was also home to Austin’s first pediatric specialist. The annual tax abatement is estimated at $19,632 with the city portion capped at $2,500


Commissioner Sandra Baldridge noted that the commission saw a lot of requests for historic designation in the vicinity, and that the historic nature of the home’s inhabitants didn’t ring her “historic bell.”


“I think that we just have too many of these, and it’s empowering a neighborhood that maybe doesn’t need to be empowered,” said Baldridge.


Baldridge also expressed concern that an addition in 1993, and construction of a pool in 1998 altered the historic character of the home. Sadowsky explained that both modernizations were located in the rear of the property, and anything not visible from the public right-of-way is not considered to impact the historic appearance of a house.


Commissioner Jason Meeker made the motion for no recommendation, saying, ““I think, for the record, that the financial implications are major at this time, in our city… Those things have to be addressed, and they need to be addressed immediately.”


The commission voted 4-2 in favor of no recommendation, with a request that their discussion of the case was attached. Seeger, who made a motion to approve historic zoning, and Commissioner Daniel Rojas opposed the motion and Commissioner Gregory Bourgeois was absent.

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