Houston officials are preparing to revise the city’s historic preservation ordinance, a signature issue for Mayor Annise Parker that spurred a prolonged and divisive fight over property rights in her first term.
That contentiousness has never fully subsided in some neighborhoods, most notably the Heights, where redevelopment had seen numerous original structures razed before Parker’s sweeping revisions to the ordinance meant, for the first time, that the city’s Historical and Archaeological Commission could block owners from carrying out alterations to historic structures that it deemed inappropriate. Previously, a denial meant a 90-day wait, after which applicants could do as they wished.
The coming revisions will be modest, city officials say, but related efforts in the works may make the law’s application more predictable.
In the Heights’ seven historic districts, redevelopment has continued through the lens of the historic commission’s interpretation of the ordinance, which some residents and developers complain is arbitrary.
[Planning and Development Director Pat] Walsh said tweaks under consideration include:
- Increasing the director’s ability to approve or deny minor alterations, preventing applicants from having to wait for approval at the historic commission’s monthly meetings; an example would be an addition to the back of the home not be visible from the street;
- Clearing up vague or contradictory language. For instance, the ordinance says new construction projects should match “typical” structures of their type, but does not clarify what “typical” means. The law also says changes to roofs are exempt but, in another section, says roof changes are handled by staff.
- Barring owners who make changes without city approval or violate their historic permit from receiving tax breaks for renovating historic structures, and lengthening the waiting period for applicants to get new building permits if they commit “demolition by neglect,” allowing an existing home to crumble to make construction of a new one easier.
Perhaps most important, Walsh said, are two related efforts that will not affect the wording of the law itself.
One is a pending study of the dimensions of homes in the Heights districts, providing staff and commissioners more information about how a proposed renovation compares to other homes. The other is Walsh’s commitment to pursue design guidelines for the three largest Heights districts, which generate the most activity.
It’s not terribly surprising that the preservation ordinance will need some maintenance. It’s a big change, and we have no history to go by for something like it. The story references former CM Sue Lovell, one of the main forces behind the ordinance who is now – and has been for awhile – working with developers and homeowners to get clarity on what is and isn’t allowed. All I can say is that whatever revisions are made this time, there will come a time to make more, and a time after that. This is a process, not a destination. The Leader News has more.