February 27, 2007
Hold that demolition, for now

Following up on his announcement to bring out stronger preservation protections for the Old Sixth Ward, Mayor White wants to enact a temporary ban on demolitions in that neighborhood until the details can be worked out.

The City Council on Wednesday will consider an ordinance that would exempt buildings in the Old Sixth Ward Historic District from a provision that allows owners to alter or tear down historic structures 90 days after the city's Archaeological and Historical Commission denies them permission to do so.

City officials said the ordinance would prevent further loss of historic homes while White's administration develops a permanent plan -- one that includes design guidelines, financial incentives and other measures to protect historic structures in the neighborhood just west of downtown. The temporary ban would expire Sept. 1.

Houston preservationists, who have long complained that Houston's historic preservation law was inadequate, said the measure is significant even though it is temporary.

"I think this is a sign of good judgment, of being proactive rather than reactive," said Lynn Edmundson, the founder and director of Historic Houston.

But City Councilman Michael Berry, while predicting the ordinance will pass, said he intends to oppose it.

"It appears that we are changing the rules on people in the middle of the game," Berry said, adding that even a temporary ban on demolitions could cause financial difficulty for a property owner who had arranged to borrow money to tear down an old house and build a new one.

The ordinance amounts to a "regulatory taking," Berry said, and is likely to prompt lawsuits from property owners demanding compensation.

Okay, that's a fair point, but here's a question. The Old Sixth is a pretty small area. It should be determinable whether or not anyone in that area is already planning a demolition in the near future. We could do a permit check, for instance. What I'm getting at here is that given the temporary nature of the ban, we should distinguish between a theoretical concern and a concrete one. If there are no actual homeowners who fit Berry's description, then (again, given that this is a temporary action) what's the problem? And if there are, then we can try to find out if they'd have any objections to a delay, and if so what (if anything) could be done about it. Maybe Berry's right, and we are exposing ourselves to a lawsuit. All I'm saying is that this should be checkable and not hypothetical.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on February 27, 2007 to Elsewhere in Houston | TrackBack