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Bluebonnet Hills clears another city hurdle

Monday, October 19, 2015 by Elizabeth Pagano

The Bluebonnet Hills local historic district is just one vote shy of creation, but its future remains uncertain after a late-night discussion at City Council.

As of Wednesday night, 52.12 percent of the property owners within the district supported its creation, according to Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky. That’s beyond the majority required by statute. However, the number of people who have signed a petition against the local historic district is also above the 20 percent required to force a supermajority vote. Just over 30 percent of the property owners in the district have signed that petition, which means nine Council members will have to vote in favor of the local historic district in order for it to be created.

On Thursday, that didn’t happen. Council voted 7-3-1 to create the district, with Council members Sheri Gallo, Ellen Troxclair and Don Zimmerman voting in opposition and Council Member Pio Renteria absent for the vote, though he has indicated support for the district.

Which means that unless someone changes their opposing vote or the valid petition is dropped, there will be no Bluebonnet Hills local historic district in the near future, despite more than 10 years of work by the neighborhood.

“I’ve spoken with both sides,” said Council Member Greg Casar. “And there is quite a bit of consensus on both sides that we just get this over with tonight.”

At just past 1:00 in the morning, Casar said that while he was in support of the historic district, he understood that, if there weren’t enough votes to create the district, and if those Council members in opposition had no intention of changing their minds, it would be best to “just stop bringing people here until late in the night over and over again if it’s just not going to work out.”

That doesn’t seem to be what happened. Gallo, who classified herself as a “proponent of personal property rights,” was the one Council member who asked for more information from city staff. She said that she needed exact numbers of opponents of the city’s previous local historic districts. Gallo also questioned why there were only two houses with historic landmark status in the neighborhood.

If people wanted historic designation for their own homes, said Gallo, they had the ability to get historic landmark status, which she said “preserves them forever.”

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo pointed out that individual landmarking had been “somewhat controversial” and that the application in question comes directly out of a city push to encourage local historic districts instead of individually recognizing buildings.

“I’m not sure we should hold that against the neighbors in this area. They are responding, in some ways, to what previous Councils have said they want the trend to be,” said Tovo.

Indeed, the idea of local historic districts comes up time and time again at the city’s Historic Landmark Commission, where commissioners stress that the bar for individual landmarking is often too high for the city’s typical historic home. Preservationists in the city point to the creation of small districts as a much better tool for preserving neighborhood character, especially in areas of the city that were traditionally working class and less likely to have connections to important historic figures.

However, a historic district necessarily contains a number of homes. And the idea of imposing additional development standards and making it harder to demolish or remodel historic homes doesn’t sit well with everyone. In Bluebonnet Hills, a handful of neighbors have spoken out against the proposal, which they fear will impose on their property rights.

If the district is created, only historic homes, described as “contributing,” would be impacted by the design standards. There are 73 homes in the district considered contributing. and of those, one belongs to a homeowner who has spoken against the district.

Sadowsky explained that, since the last time the proposal was before Council, the design standards had been workshopped to make them more “user friendly” and the commission had re-evaluated the district to refine the historic homes to their “core” by removing the homes built after World War II.

Complicating matters, Sadowsky pointed out that “quite a few” of the homes within the proposed district had been sold over the summer and the numbers had changed in terms of support and opposition as a result.

Echoing the swift pace of change in the city, Tovo noted that in the past year, there had been 191 demolitions within District 9 and 180 homes demolished in District 3. Local historic districts, she said, are a tool to help preserve neighborhoods in the face of such rapid redevelopment and “stem some of the overhaul that’s been going on.”

This story has been corrected.

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