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Bluebonnet Hills district gets go-ahead … again

Wednesday, January 28, 2015 by Elizabeth Pagano

For a second time in as many months, the Historic Landmark Commission has endorsed the creation of the Bluebonnet Hills preservation district.

Though the commission already voted to recommend the district in November, there was a noticing error for that hearing, and commissioners were asked to hold the hearing a second time. On Monday, they re-recommended the local historic district — this time in a vote of 5-0-1, with Commissioner Dan Leary abstaining. Commissioner Terri Myers was absent.

Neighbor Arif Panju, who opposes the district and brought the noticing error to the city’s attention, has also questioned whether Myers’ work on a historical survey of the area posed a conflict of interest. Though Myers told the Monitor that she did not believe it did, her absence kept the question out of the spotlight.

Nonetheless, Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky assured the commissioners that her work had been redone by new consultants since she surveyed the area six years ago, and that they were in no danger of being in conflict of interest themselves by voting on the item.

In an email to the Monitor, Panju explained that he has asked for, but not received, copies of the current surveys, and that they have not been posted online.

Before he abstained from the vote, Leary said he was concerned that support for the district had shifted since the application was submitted.

Panju said that, since getting the original recommendation thrown out, he has had the opportunity to talk to his neighbors and establish a petition of his own — against the district.

“Because I can’t rely on folks to tell the truth, to send proper notices and to expose conflicts of interest, what I have to do is to go to homeowners themselves. And a significant percentage now have flipped from supporting to not-supporting,” said Panju. “It’s no longer a valid petition, it no longer has 51 percent support — you are down to the low 40s.

“We outright object this attempt to take away our property rights,” said Panju.

Though Panju’s petition has yet to be verified, Sadowsky explained that a shift in support didn’t matter, legally speaking.

“The code says that the application has to have a minimum of 51 percent, either the owners of the property or the owners of 51 percent of the land, at the time that our office certifies it as complete and we present it to you,” said Sadowsky. “Of course, it always looks better when that percentage remains above 51 percent, but in drafting the ordinances that make up the code, I think there was an expectation that number would fluctuate.”

According to the staff presentation, 58 percent of the neighborhood supports the creation of a Bluebonnet Hills Local Historic District.

Many neighbors showed up to support the district. Though the noticing error was by the city and not the group that is seeking a preservation district, proponents emphasized the steps that they had taken within their community to get the word out about the proposal.

Angela Reed explained their efforts, saying that contact information was widely available throughout Travis Heights on yard signs, the Travis Heights.org website, a Historic Travis Heights Facebook page, the neighborhood association newsletter, a neighborhood listserv and direct emails, as well as in neighborhood meetings. Additionally, said Reed, they formed a design standards committee that used the 2005 neighborhood plan.

“When all of that was done, and finally complete, we started the process of petitioning our neighbors to accept or reject the proposal,” Reed said. “Volunteers signed up as block captains, and we left detailed information with links, references, a frequently asked questions page and sign-up sheets on neighbors’ doors or their email inboxes,” said Reed. “Residents turned in their votes, and the LHD quickly achieved more than the 51 percent required support.”

Initially, neighbors were working toward a historic preservation district that would encompass all of Travis Heights. But since that effort began about a decade ago, many of the houses that would have been contributing structures have been torn down.

Brent Hunter, who supports the district, warned that even the current, more modest proposal could be threatened if the city didn’t act fast.

“The fact of the matter is, there are diminishing amounts of areas in the city where you could even do this,” said Hunter. “We’re really asking the City of Austin to have a greater vision here. If you want to support this decision and have historic districts, you need to let this thing pass, because there are very few options south of the river, and there are less and less every day.”

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