Houston “puts teeth” into historic preservation

October 13, 2010

Government & Politics, Urbanism

After months of political wrangling and heated public debate, Houston City Council voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to amend its existing historic preservation ordinance, making it what Mayor Annise Parker called a “real no means no” law that would prevent residential property owners from tearing down homes in designated historic districts.

After a marathon session of discussing and voting on the numerous amendments, first to the “transition” phase measure and then to the main item revising the ordinance, the vote for the new law was 12-3.

The dissenters were District B Councilman Jarvis Johnson, District E Councilman Mike Sullivan and At-Large Position 4 Councilman C.O. Bradford, all of whom expressed concerns that the new law dilutes the property rights of homeowners, especially the ones in districts designated historic under the previous ordinance.

But they also said the new law was better than what was originally proposed by Parker and At-Large Position 2 Councilwoman Sue Lovell, who spearheaded the ordinance over the past several months, and congratulated them.

Lovell and Parker said the new ordinance would “put teeth into” the city’s historic preservation efforts. Under the old ordinance, individual property owners and developers only have to wait out a 90-day period before proceeding with demolitions or other changes not sanctioned by the city’s historic and archeological and planning commissions.

But Parker admitted that the new law was a “compromise document” — fashioned after councilmembers proposed, substituted and withdrew amendments over the past two weeks, included a 3 -1/2 page one that most members first saw Wednesday morning — was not quite as strong as what she’d originally sought.

In particular, Parker said, while the new law applies to all existing historic districts in the city, it allows residents in those districts a “one-time-only” chance to opt out of the historic district designation. That would only be done if after a petition is placed on the city’s Website (probably by Friday), 10 percent of the residents in parts of those districts expressed a desire for a resurvey. The petitioners will have 30 days from the date of the posting.

That was part of the large compromise amendment first introduced Wednesday morning by District A Councilwoman Brenda Stardig, although she said during the discussion that she was not its primary author. Under other amendments approved Wednesday, property owners in historic districts who are denied changes by the historic and planning commissions can make a last appeal to City Council. The council would then vote on the matter already in the record, without hearing new evidence.

One pending historic district — Houston Heights South — will fall under the newly enacted transition period, while two others — Woodland Heights and Glenbrook Valley — will not. All subsequent historic districts — which must be neighborhoods over 50 years old — will fall under the new ordinance.

“For the first time in Houston’s history we hae a real ‘no means no’ ordinance,” Parker told reporters after the meeting concluded. But, she said, homeowners in existing historic districts “have to hold onto their protections.”

Wednesday’s vote followed months of discussion over the matter, including several public hearings over the summer which drew hundreds of people on both sides of the issue. Many people spoke passionately both for and against the new ordinance in Tuesday’s public session.

CORRECTION:  The first version of this post incorrectly stated that the vote was on Tuesday, not Wednesday.

Copyright © 2010 Ken Fountain. All rights reserved.

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About Ken Fountain

I'm a journalist and writer in Houston, Texas. My areas of specialty include law and courts, local government and energy and environmental issues. You can follow me on Twitter at @twitter.com/kenfountain and email me at kenfountain1 (at) gmail (dot) com.

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