Residents weigh in on historic designations

Jul. 23, 2015Houston Chronicle

Houstonians who live in historic districts, including the Old Sixth Ward, the Heights and the High First Ward, weighed in this week on proposed updates to the city’s rules that create areas preserved from most demolition and new construction, agreeing with some proposed changes, pointing out loopholes for unwanted development and taking the opportunity to complain about the current process.

The proposed revisions to the historic ordinance, which would enable creation of a process to create and manage historic districts, were presented in summary at a public hearing Wednesday night. The meeting was part of the efforts of the Planning and Development Department and the Houston Archaeological and Historical Commission to refine the ordinance.

The historic ordinance was created to protect against redevelopment in neighborhoods where original structures were razed and replaced en masse when areas such as Montrose and the Heights grew in popularity. Some residents have complained that the interpretation of the ordinance is arbitrary, enforcement is lax and the process inefficient.

The ordinance, updated in 2010, created permanent protections for historic structures in the 22 designated districts and established a process for creating a district. The proposed changes strive to streamline approvals for requested changes within a district, provide guidance to the commission and create a more efficient process.

Many of those issues came to light Wednesday, even as it was acknowledged that historic districts are some of the strongest land-use laws Houston offers to property owners. A large contingency showed up from the Old Sixth Ward, one of the oldest districts. The neighborhood is near downtown, with houses dating back to the 1800s.

Resident Jane West asked the panel to consider how new construction is monitored in historic districts. She cited an instance in which a noncontributing structure was demolished but then replaced with a building that was larger than what was there before.

“We want to make sure the districts are a shield for neighborhoods, not a sword for developers,” West said.

Others from various districts in Montrose, the Heights and First Ward complained of the vague design requirements, the lack of term limits on the historic commission panel and the seemingly arbitrary process for approvals.

Douglas Elliott, a citizen representative on the Historic Commission, said the panel would take the issues raised by the public into consideration. He pointed to questions raised about defining rules about demolition, the appeal process and the rules for creating a district.

Some stressed that the historic ordinance protections are key to maintaining the character of their neighborhoods.

“Prior to these historic districts, there was no planning and no protection for our communities,” Diane Ryan Morin, also of Old Sixth Ward, told the commission.

Proposed ordinance changes would create a way to create design guidelines for all districts to help ensure all projects meet the criteria for each district; increase the scope of administrative approvals by the director; and expand and clarify exemptions from the ordinance to reduce confusion. That change would add a number of architectural features, such as window screens and gutters to the exempt list.

The proposal also changes the process for creating a historic district. The code requires a yes vote by 67 percent of the tracts in the district. The change would require support from 67 percent of the responding tracts, as long as half of the property owners respond. The changes proposed also would require more technical expertise by those appointed to the commission and provide flexibility for appointing and retaining qualified people.

They also would increase penalties for illegal demolition and require that some of the ambitious or vague language in the ordinance regarding new construction, noncontributing structures and design guidelines be clarified.

A meeting will be held Aug. 5 at 6 p.m. at the City Annex Chambers, 900 Bagby. The commission will consider all the comments received, and staff will most likely present recommendations.