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New preservation district on hold after staff error

Monday, January 12, 2015 by Elizabeth Pagano

The Bluebonnet Hills preservation district will be returning to the Historic Landmark Commission this month, after a determination that the city did not give proper notice for the hearing.

When the district was before the Historic Landmark Commission in November, neighbor Arif Panju raised an objection to the short notice he had received and asked for a postponement. Commissioners unanimously denied his postponement request, with Chair Laurie Limbacher and Commissioners John Rosato and Dan Leary absent.

Panju subsequently substantiated a notification error outside of the commission. That means that although Historic Landmark Commissioners have already voted to support the district, they will have to vote again.

Panju has also asked that Commissioner Terri Myers recuse herself, because she performed the historical surveys included in the application. If Myers had recused herself during the last hearing, the commission would not have had enough voting members present to form a quorum and could not have heard the case.

Myers made the motion to hear the case in November, despite Panju’s objections. At the time, she pointed out that those working on the district’s creation had been working for about seven years, and she praised the public outreach they had undertaken during that time.

In addition to working as a civil rights attorney, Panju is on the board of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, and told commissioners that he understood both Open Records Law and the Public Information Act. He said that the neighbors he had spoken to did not understand the potential impact of a preservation district.

Panju explained that he and his wife had recently bought a home in the neighborhood and did not “live in the bubble that the homeowners association lives in.” Though he had heard about a push for a preservation district, he said that he had no idea where the plan stood, nor had he had the time to study what was proposed.

Panju said he didn’t receive official notice until 10 days before the meeting. The law requires 11 days’ notice. He added that the notice was vague, and required additional research to determine what, exactly, was being proposed.

“Four business days under any sort of standards of due process and proper notice just flies in the face of traditional notions of due process for equity and fairness to have folks represent their interests,” said Panju.

The case was postponed at the Dec. 9 Planning Commission meeting, and subsequently, City Legal conceded the point.

In a letter dated Dec. 18, Assistant City Attorney Deborah Thomas told Panju that the notice did not comply with code, and the hearing would be re-noticed. She said she would also forward Myers the concerns about her potential conflict of interest.

“As with all City officials, she must assess her situation to determine if a conflict exists,” wrote Thomas.

Myers explained her position in an email to the Austin Monitor and said that she would not recuse herself unless the city attorney strongly advised her to do so for legal reasons.

“I started working for Fairview/Travis Heights on May 16, 2007 and completed a survey of the entire area, about 1,200 properties,” wrote Myers. “At that time, representatives of the neighborhood asked me to stop work on the National Register nomination and give my materials over to them, as they felt they could do the rest of the work themselves and save the money it was going to cost them to complete the project. While I was disappointed to lose the project, I understood their situation.

“I do not plan to recuse myself because I have not had a financial relationship with Fairview/Travis Heights for five or six years, and I was not yet a member of the commission when I took on the project. I don’t think I was on the commission by the time I was asked to cease my work, either.

“I do, however, have a civic interest in all historic properties throughout the city and will continue to advocate for their preservation. Furthermore, members of the Historic Landmark Commission are charged with the same goal; to protect and preserve genuine historic properties and to recommend historic areas for listing as Local Historic Districts. That is the issue that should be at stake here — whether the district is eligible for listing as a Local Historic District, not whether I did some work for the neighborhood five or six years ago,” Myers concluded.

Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky told the commission that 10 days’ notice was the legal requirement. When he spoke to the Monitor last week, he had little comment on the matter.

“I’m not sure, exactly, what happened. But it is being rectified,” said Sadowsky.

On Dec. 19, Panju received an email from Sadowsky stating that the hearing had been scheduled for the Historic Landmark Commission’s Jan. 26 meeting, and notice of the public hearing would go out at least 11 days in advance of the hearing date.

On Jan. 9, when the Monitor spoke to Panju, he had still not received that official notice, which he said indicated a bigger problem. He pointed out that the city could do better than the absolute minimum required by law.

“If you really want a public debate, let the homeowners know what’s going on. Maybe send them a copy of what you want to do,” said Panju. “Things that affect public participation happen all the time. But when it’s blatant, when homeowners come up and say … ‘It just doesn’t seem like there is enough time for homeowners to know what’s going on,’ and that is ignored, and people stand up at open meetings that say everything is OK, and you have a commissioner who is on the application who is voting on her own stuff … it just screams of complete disdain for the role of open meetings, open records and public participation.

“If we didn’t blow the whistle at that meeting, for example, this would have happened,” Panju continued. “Homeowners would not have gotten notice, they would have been under new zoning restrictions, Commissioner Myers would never have been called out on her conflict-of-interest and the ball would just keep rolling.”


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