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Texas House bill takes aim at historic preservation rules

Thursday, March 23, 2017 by Caleb Pritchard

Fans of keeping historic buildings just as they are have sounded the alarm over a legislative bill that could bring wholesale change to preservation policies across the state, including here in Austin.

State Rep. Gary Elkins, a Republican from northwestern Houston, filed House Bill 3418 earlier this month. It would alter the state’s Local Government Code and create statewide rules that would make it both harder for governments to preserve properties and easier for owners to demolish them.

“This is really taking away local communities’ ability to save their own history,” Preservation Austin’s Kate Singleton told the Austin Monitor on Wednesday.

The most significant part of the bill would give the city a much smaller window of time in which to respond to applications for demolition permits submitted by owners of properties in historic districts. Right now, a historic zoning case can linger for 180 days without any action taken before a permit is automatically released. Elkins’ bill would cut that to 30 days.

Singleton warned that that would not allow for enough time to notify the public, seek input and make judicious decisions.

Singleton said her group is coordinating with sibling groups across the state as well as with Preservation Texas to oppose HB 3418. She said the first of the bill’s three sections makes little sense.

It opens with a mandate that any city that has created a historic preservation process must require that any property or district under consideration for historic zoning be associated with an event “widely recognized” as historic, or a person who is “recognized as a historic figure who lived at that property location.”

“This already duplicates what most cities already have in their local preservation ordinances, so we can’t figure out why they’re doing this,” Singleton said.

The other section of the bill would require a three-fourths majority vote on Austin’s Historic Landmark Commission to recommend a property for preservation over its owner’s objections. Currently, the HLC needs a two-thirds majority of a quorum to push such a case forward to City Council, though there is an effort afoot to reduce that threshold to a simple majority.

Singleton fears the higher bar will rob Council of the chance to even consider the fate of those properties. Under current city ordinance, three-fourths of Council is needed to zone a property historic against an owner’s wishes, a threshold that would be codified into state law under HB 3418.

Elkins’ office declined a request to comment on this bill. The Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative Austin-based think tank, came to his bill’s defense.

Chance Weldon, an attorney at the TPPF’s Center for the American Future, framed it as a matter of defending against cities dictating to individuals what they can and can’t do with their homes.

“If the state wants to come in and defend property rights, the state’s well within its authority to do so,” Weldon said. “It’s not too much ask that you have a supermajority before you do something like tell someone that you’re essentially going to take their property without paying for it. And it’s not too much ask at the end of the day that that decision is made in a timely manner.”

Weldon also suggested that preservation as a tool of local government has grown beyond its original function of protecting community heritage.

“It’s a pretext for just not wanting the neighborhood to change,” he said.

With the 85th Texas Legislature already past the halfway point, Elkins’ HB 3418 still has not been referred to any House committees.

Photo by Matthew Levine from San Francisco, CA, USA (Downtown Austin 6) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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