Heritage Preservation Ordinance Changes
This morning, the Council voted on a significant overhaul of the City's Heritage Preservation ordinance. Though everyone is relatively clear that these changes are a step in the right direction, there has been a certain level of controversy in the neighborhoods and among heritage preservation experts. Many of the questions that have been asked are about whether the proposed changes go far enough. Folks wanted to have a better idea what is included in a new definition in the code: 'destruction' of a historic resource. Neighborhoods also wanted to have more notice about demolitions.
Yesterday, I was prepared to bring two amendments to what staff had proposed. The first, which had full support of staff, was a better definition of destruction: "the removal, damage, or enclosure of architectural, mechanical, or landscape features that may have an adverse effect on the historical integrity and significance of a property including, but not limited to, the removal of the primary façade(s), character defining façade(s), or the removal of the roof of the structure for the purpose of raising the overall height of the building or roof." While I would have been happy with even more specificity, I think this met both staff's need for flexibility and the community's desire for clarity.
The second amendment was more controversial. I have heard concerns from a number of residents, many of them in Prospect Park, about demolition decisions being made without their knowledge. I put together a motion that would have required people applying for demolition permits to notify the appropriate neighborhood group(s) and Council Member(s), before the application would be considered complete. This would have given neighborhoods the opportunity to share any information they might have about the historic value of a structure with our staff before a determination is made as to whether it is a historic resource. I think we need to be honest with ourselves that neighborhoods may sometimes have information that City staff do not.
Heritage Preservation staff believed this was unnecessary, because they will be emailing a list of all demolition applications to all neighborhoods every Monday. This will be an administrative policy change and will not be codified in ordinance, however, and so could change in the future without Council action. They also questioned whether such a requirement belongs in the Heritage Preservation ordinance, rather than the building code. However, we heard from the Attorney's Office that there were no legal concerns with putting it there, and we also heard from Regulatory Services staff that they could effectively implement the new requirements. I understood HPC staff's concerns and applaud them for committing to email this info out to neighborhoods every week. However, there is no commitment that staff will make designation decisions only after neighborhoods have been notified, so it didn't go far enough for me.
Council Member Betsy Hodges strongly opposed this amendment, and spoke against it yesterday. She had done a great deal of work on the amendments. The author of the larger amendment, Council member Gary Schiff also had concerns. This morning, it was clear that the motion would not prevail if I brought it forward and that there may be some ways to address some of the concerns raised by my staff and colleagues.
So, rather than bringing it forward, I decided to hold off. I communicated my continuing concerns to my colleagues, and put them and staff on notice that I expect neighborhoods to receive adequate notice without this amendment. If I start hearing again, despite the commitments of staff and my colleagues, that houses are being OK'ed for demolition before residents have a chance to share information with us, I will move forward with an amendment to the Building Code requiring notice of all demolition applications.
I am convinced that the demolition of a property is a big enough issue that some kind of notice to neighborhood associations and council members is appropriate. Since it is the practice in other kinds of applications and it would represent the earliest possible was to get notice out to people, I am also convinced that making it a part of the competed application process also makes sense.
Here is the text of the process I drafted, but did not move:
(The portion in italics is the new language that did not get introduced or passed today.)
599.460. Review of demolitions permits. The planning director shall review all building permit applications that meet the definition for demolition for a demolition permit to determine whether the affected property is an historic resource. Before making a determination, the planning director shall require that applicants submit evidence that notification of the application has been mailed or delivered to the ward council office and the neighborhood group(s) for the area in which the property is located. The neighborhood group(s) to be notified are those organizations that appear on the list maintained by the planning director for this purpose. The notification shall include the following information: the address of the property for which a demolition permit is sought; and the applicant's name, address, telephone number, and e-mail address, if available. Where the property for which a demolition is sought is located on a public street that acts as a boundary between two (2) or more neighborhoods, the above information shall also be provided to the neighborhood group(s) representing the adjacent area(s). If the planning director determines that the property is not an historic resource, the demolition building permit shall be approved. If the planning director determines that the property is an historic resource, the building permit shall not be issued without review and approval by the commission following a public hearing as provided in section 599.170.