City to remove subjectivity from historic ordinance

Oct. 3, 2014Heights Leader

For more than a year, homeowners, builders, architects and even local newspapers have called on the city of Houston to improve its historic preservation ordinance. In the Heights, the ordinance has pitted neighbors against each other, and has left builders and architects wondering how to appease both the city and their clients.

Mayor Annise Parker and officials in the city’s Planning & Development Department have responded. Their effort to make improvements to the amended 2010 Historic Preservation Ordinance began in earnest on Monday night when a 5-member committee opened discussions on ways to add predictability and remove subjectivity of renovating or building homes in the city’s historic districts.

There may be no better example of the need for these improvements than Tina Han, who with zero emotion, addressed members of the newly appointed committee earlier this week.

Han and her husband were recently denied what’s called a “Certificate of Appropriateness” to renovate their home in the Heights. The Houston Archaeological and Historical Commission ruled the Han’s plans were not appropriate for the neighborhood.

“We engaged the [Planning Department] staff from Day 1 of our project, and we complied with each staff recommendation,” Han told the committee Monday night. “Over 36 hours and $4,400 of our money was spent in redesign pursuant to the staffers’ recommendation. We did, in fact, receive staff recommendation for approval.”

But like so many applications that appear before HAHC, Han was still denied a permit to begin construction.

“It appears to me there is not a system of accountability for the historic commission when they deny a certificate of appropriateness for a project that the staff has recommended for approval,” Han continued. “This disconnect between the staffers and the historic commission creates a system by which the efforts and training of the staff becomes ineffective. It destroys any credibility of the staff to be able to provide appropriate recommendations to the applicant.”

Han’s dilemma has been a story too often heard around the Heights. Homeowners have spent thousands upon thousands of dollars drawing plans and hiring consultants because of the uncertainty of whether or not they can build to a certain height, or width or depth.

Patrick Walsh, who, in March, was named director of the Planning & Development Department, said the problems facing people like Han is exactly what he wants this committee to help resolve.

“I believe we need a limited, targeted ordinance update,” Walsh said Monday. “It is natural that, through the experience of these four years [since the ordinance was passed], staff and the community have noted a number of areas where the ordinance can be improved.”

One of the most important issues to Walsh is creating a system for implementing design guidelines in historic districts. In some historic districts – like the Heights – there are no specific guidelines for what a homeowner can and cannot do to his or her home. Instead, words like “typical” and “prevailing” are scattered throughout the ordinance and leave HAHC members plenty of room for subjectivity when they make decisions.

Walsh said this committee must help enhance predictability and reduce subjectivity, and developing a process for the establishment of design guidelines must be addressed.

“The ordinance is silent [on creation of guidelines] for previously existing districts,” he said.

At Monday’s meeting, no specific decisions were made to change portions of the 2010 Historic Preservation Ordinance. Instead, members of the public were invited to share their ideas and opinions, and deputy director Margaret Wallace-Brown read through the 17 specific areas where staff members of the Planning Department believe the ordinance needs improvement.

Members of the committee include Rob Hellyer, who will serve as chairman, Doug Elliot and Anna Mod – all members of the HAHC. Sonny Garza and Truman Edminster III are members of the city’s Planning Commission, and they round out the 5-member committee.

Kent Marsh, who has been a preservation advocate in the Heights and has formed an ad-hoc committee to protect historic homes, said he couldn’t find many problems with the scope and purpose of the committee.
“I had a very positive impression of what they want to do,” Marsh said. “Issues were raised, from both sides, and it appears those issues are going to be addressed.”

Over the past year, especially since the work of HAHC has garnered more attention and homeowners have become more involved in the process of renovating historic homes, Walsh believes the process has actually improved.

“Things are getting better,” he said. “I feel comfortable that the staff and the commission are gaining experience of what their decisions mean on the ground.”

Sue Lovell, a former member of the Houston City Council who actually drafted the 2010 amended ordinance, has been a loudly outspoken critic of HAHC and the Planning Department’s approach to working with homeowners in historic districts. She said she has finally had a chance to talk, in depth, with Walsh, and she believes this committee has the opportunity to make much needed changes in the legislation.

“It was so appropriate that they brought up design guidelines,” said Lovell, who has harped on the need for the past year. “When we passed this ordinance, it was intended to stop all the demolition of homes, but it was also designed to allow for growth.”

Now, she said, the ordinance has been turned into a confusing document that places citizens and city officials in an adversarial position.

“Let’s proceed with these guidelines, which will force us to do an inventory of the historic districts,” she said.

The committee’s next meeting is scheduled for Monday, Oct. 13, in council chambers at 900 Bagby St.