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Changes coming to Historic Landmark Commission

Wednesday, January 25, 2017 by Jo Clifton

Mayor Steve Adler went on record at Tuesday’s City Council work session as opposing a loosening of the regulations for the Historic Landmark Commission to begin the process of designating Austin homes as historic.

At the same time, Council Member Jimmy Flannigan said he was ready to remove a member of the commission who has been ideologically opposed to most historic designations. He was referring to Arif Panju, who was appointed to the commission by former District 6 Council Member Don Zimmerman.

Flannigan, who defeated Zimmerman in November, told the Austin Monitor that he intends to sponsor a resolution to remove Panju on Thursday. He will not have interviewed the person he hopes to appoint to take that spot on the commission by then, however, so the replacement will likely be nominated in February.

As the commission rules now stand, two-thirds of its members must vote in favor of zoning a property historic in order to start the rezoning process if the owner opposes the designation in writing.

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo proposed changing the rules so that a simple majority of the commission could begin the historic designation process. Tovo proposed the rule change because absences have sometimes resulted in release of demolition permits for homes considered historic and viable.

Adler said he was not in favor of Tovo’s proposal, offering instead an amendment that would add alternate members to the commission so that the panel would always have a full roster to vote on historic designations. He did not elaborate on the number of additional appointees he would like to see but noted that the Board of Adjustment has a similar structure – the board requires a supermajority in order to grant variances.

According to the Historic Preservation Office, more than 1,200 homes that were 50 years old or older have been demolished since 2013. The office receives an average of 50 demolition permit requests each month. The commission’s job is to review requests to demolish structures older than 50 years. If the commission does not recommend historic designation, the demolition permit is released. If fewer commissioners were needed to begin the historic preservation process, there would, at least theoretically, be fewer demolitions.

Homeowners in the Ebony Acres neighborhood in East Austin are trying to put together a local historic district. However, at its Dec. 16 meeting, the commission approved 11 demolitions in that neighborhood alone.

Absenteeism has plagued the commission, and Council Member Leslie Pool pointed to ideological arguments among commissioners as the reason for so many absences. She said, “The landmark commission became unworkable in the last two years. … Specifically, as we know, there were some people who intended to undermine the mission of the commission. And so that led to contention in those meetings.”

Pool pointed out that members of the commission are volunteers who often come to the meetings after a long day at work. She said arguments over the purpose of the commission should not have taken place because the mission is clearly spelled out in city documents and regulations.

Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky told the Monitor that people are frequently absent from the commission meetings. “It is rare that we have everybody there,” he said, but added that that’s not the real problem.

“The bigger problem is we’ve got some members who are basically ideologically opposed to historic preservation,” Sadowsky said. “They never, ever vote for anything (to be designated historic). They don’t look at the evidence.”

During his tenure on the commission, Panju has been a consistently resolute opponent of historic designation. His fellow commissioners have argued with him on numerous occasions and have accused Panju of failing to do his job as a commissioner.

Reached after the work session, Panju told the Monitor that Flannigan had informed him that he would be removed from the commission this week. Panju’s appointment would have expired at the end of February anyway, but he could have continued service until Flannigan appointed someone else to take his spot. This way, he will miss just one meeting that he might otherwise have attended.

“I’ve always done my best to give an intellectually defensible position,” Panju said, but mounted a spirited attack on the city’s historic preservation structure.

“For far too long, the Historic Landmark Commission has been a place where Austin homeowners’ dreams go to die. I’m one of the few people on that commission who gives voice to Austin homeowners’ dreams for their homes and for their properties – something they’ve never had there. And sadly that will be lacking once I’m no longer on the commission,” Panju said.

Glen Coleman, a lobbyist who frequently represents homebuilders before the commission, said Council meetings would be considerably longer if the commission started approving more historic designations.

As Coleman noted, at one point during Tuesday’s work session Council Member Pio Renteria said that he was willing to attend Council meetings until 3 a.m. every week if his presence was needed.

Coleman said if Tovo’s resolution is approved, then Renteria should expect to be at Council meetings until 6 a.m. because of the large number of historic designations Council would then have to consider.

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