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Panel shoots down tax abatement, for now

Tuesday, April 12, 2016 by Elizabeth Pagano

The former home of one of Austin’s most famous African-American baseball players may soon be restored, but that restoration will take place without the benefit of a city tax abatement this year.

Historic Landmark commissioners voted 7-2 to deny the tax abatement for the Willie Wells house at 1705 Newton St. after the home failed a recent property-tax exemption inspection. The home failed its inspection last year as well, but it now has a new owner as of March 24, and that owner hoped to use the saved property tax to help fund his restoration plans. However, given the lack of a city review of those plans or a timeline for repairs, only Chair Mary Jo Galindo and Commissioner Tiffany Osburn voted against the denial. Commissioner Terri Myers was recused from the vote.

Alyson McGee spoke on behalf of the homeowner, Richard Kooris, as his representative and real estate agent. She explained that the home was once owned by Austin native Willie Wells, who was a shortstop in the Negro Leagues from the 1920s until the 1940s. Wells was posthumously inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

McGee said that as soon as Kooris found out the property was for sale, he immediately put it under contract and had just closed on the house the previous week. McGee said he had already hired an architect and planned to restore the home as quickly as possible, but was unable to obtain a certificate of appropriateness in the four days prior to the commission meeting showing that he actually owned the house.

McGee said that Kooris also plans to submit a nomination for the home to be included on the National Register of Historic Places and intends to apply for a state historic marker in addition to the restoration.

“He really wants to make sure the story of Willie Wells is made more available to the public,” said McGee.

Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky said he was uncomfortable recommending the tax abatement without a certificate of appropriateness and timeline for repairs, given the current state of the house. The landmark did not receive last year’s tax abatement because of its state of disrepair. In fact, said Sadowsky, the previous owner had hoped to demolish the home.

“This is a much better situation than the one we had last year, but the fact remains the conditions still exist,” said Sadowsky.

The city approves tax abatements on an annual basis, and the deadline for that approval was set to occur before the commission’s next meeting. McGee explained that Kooris had already made a significant investment in the home and was committed to investing more through the restoration.

The vote took place at the commission’s March 28 meeting. Kooris learned on March 16 that the home had failed the property-tax exemption inspection, and he closed on the home March 24. Each year, the commission forwards its tax abatement recommendations to the Travis Central Appraisal District and the Law Department in early April.

Commissioner Blake Tollett was unmoved by the tight timeline.

“Whatever money is spent … I think they will be able to pull it out of the other end,” said Tollett. “You know what you’re buying, you know that it had failed and was poorly maintained. I think you would take that into consideration in the money you pay (to purchase the home.)”

Commissioner Arif Panju argued that laws must be applied equally, under the Equal Protection Clause. He noted similarities to a case in which tax abatement was recently denied by the commission and said that treating this case differently would be “a serious problem.”

“I think the rules are there for a reason,” said Panju. “I think this person is probably going to come through, but there’s a reason they have to come through first.”

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