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Historic Landmark Commission reforms hit a bump

Tuesday, June 27, 2017 by Elizabeth Pagano

Despite an agreement across sides that the current process is “Kafkaesque,” the Planning Commission did not vote to support an amendment that would change the number of Historic Landmark commissioners it takes to recommend historic zoning over the objections of property owners.

Currently, the Historic Landmark Commission must recommend historic zoning in such cases with a supermajority of two-thirds – or eight out of 11 votes. If that threshold is not met, the case goes no further, and is not heard by City Council. A resolution from Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo that was approved in January contemplates changing that to a simple majority, though Council, who ultimately holds the power to rezone property, would still be required to approve a change to historic zoning with a supermajority vote.

On June 13, Planning commissioners voted 5-6-1 against the amendment with commissioners Patricia Seeger, Tom Nuckols, Karen McGraw, Nuria Zaragoza and Fayez Kazi voting in favor and Chair Stephen Oliver and commissioners Jeffrey Thompson, Greg Anderson, James Shieh, James Schissler and Chito Vela voting in opposition. Commissioner Trinity White abstained and Commissioner Angela De Hoyos Hart was absent.

“I love historic properties, I always have,” said Vela, speaking in support of a higher threshold for designating a property historic against the wishes of the owner. “I want to say that designating a house historic against the wishes of the owner is not the end of the process, it’s just the beginning … that often turns into a nightmare for everybody.”

McGraw, who made the motion to support the change, said she thought that the current rules were only contributing to delays.

Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky explained that the resolution had come after a year where three cases that met the criteria for historic landmarking were not able to meet the supermajority requirement at the Historic Landmark Commission. Though the cases had the support of a simple majority, they did not move on to Council.

The buildings he referenced were: the 1913 Ben and Maude Leifeste House at 3108 Grandview St., which he said was the best example of “palm plaster” in the city; the Cherico-Franzetti-Arriga House at 1403 E. Sixth St., which was a neighborhood grocery store dating back to 1890; and, of course, the 1935 Montopolis Negro School that the city is still straining to preserve.

Sadowsky said that while the Historic Landmark Commission rarely has quorum issues, it does have supermajority issues, as sometimes there are not eight members of the commission at the meeting. The eight-vote requirement remains consistent through absences, even if a seat on the commission is vacant.

Scott Marks, who is the president of the Old West Austin Neighborhood Association, spoke in favor of the amendment. He explained that the neighborhood association is very calculating in what buildings it chooses to fight to preserve, but the odds are against it.

“Last year (OWANA) batted zero percent on historic buildings, and it was because of this technicality,” he said. “Unfortunately, what we saw was because of quorum issues, because of, frankly, rogue commissioners, it didn’t even make it to the City Council and that is really unfortunate.”

Though interested parties can appeal a demolition permit to Council, none of the three cases that Sadowsky cited were appealed. Marks said that this was the first time he had heard such a thing, though he said he did not think that it was the way things should be handled, anyway.

Zaragoza explained that there was a reason that the ability to appeal demolition permits was not widely known – staff was not aware of that alternative until recently either.

“Staff didn’t know there was this appeals process. Someone submitted an appeal, there’s been one appeal, and apparently that is going to change with the new code,” said Zaragoza.

Upon hearing that, Marks declared the system “Kafkaesque.”

Glen Coleman, on behalf of the Home Builders Association of Greater Austin, said that the system was Kafkaesque from the perspective of those hoping to demolish a building as well. He explained the process for initiating historic zoning against the wishes of the homeowner can be a lengthy one. Using the example of a case that he had represented, he detailed how it was a six-month process just to get to Council, and nothing was zoned historic in the end.

Coleman said, by his count, Council had only zoned four buildings historic against the will of the owner, and questioned what the gain would be if this change was made. He suggested that the city appoint alternates to the commission instead, as a way of solving what he also acknowledged as a problematic process.

“It is a problem. It is frustrating. It’s frustrating for me. I don’t even like winning on a technicality. I welcome having a full, sitting commission,” he said. “You are being asked to solve a real problem with a false hope.”

Photo courtesy of the city of Austin.

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