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Responsible Historic Preservation

Supreme Court upholds Houston historic preservation ordinance

Blast from the past.

The Texas Supreme Court has upheld Houston’s ordinance regulating the preservation of historic districts, after residents argued it was an illegal zoning measure.

Two homeowners in the Heights challenged the law, arguing that it constituted zoning and therefore required a ballot measure approved by voters to take effect. Houston, the largest city in the country without zoning, requires voter approval to implement it.

Supreme Court justices declined on Friday to back that argument, though, affirming lower court rulings that the ordinance is not extensive enough to be considered a zoning regulation, and it does not regulate how people use properties.

“In sum, the Ordinance does not regulate the purposes for which land can be used, lacks geographic comprehensiveness, impacts each site differently in order to preserve and ensure the historic character of building exteriors, and does not adopt the enforcement and penalty provisions characteristic of a zoning ordinance,” Justice J. Brett Busby wrote in the opinion.


Houston adopted the ordinance in 1995, allowing the city to establish historic districts and requiring owners there to get approval to modify, redevelop or raze properties. If a city board declined a property owner’s application, though, the owner could wait 90 days and get a waiver to proceed with the desired changes, a gaping loophole that rendered the ordinance toothless.

The city revamped the ordinance in 2010 under then-Mayor Annise Parker, ending the waivers and making the regulations more enforceable. It allows only for modifications that are compatible with the area’s architecture, as defined by the Houston Archaeological and Historical Commission. Some backers of the ordinance since have argued the board does not uniformly apply its rules.

The lawsuit over this was filed in 2012. I confess, I had not given it a moment’s thought since then. For those of you who are interested in this sort of thing, now you know how it turned out.

Lawsuit filed over historic preservation ordinance

I got an email last week from Kathleen Powell of Responsible Historic Preservation for Houston announcing that the first lawsuit against Houston’s new historic preservation. You can see a copy of the complaint here. What I have not seen is a mention of this on any news-related website. Nothing on the Chron, or Swamplot, or CultureMap, heck not even a mention on the RHP for Houston site itself, just this HAIF forum thread, which has predictably descended into invective.

The suit itself makes the following claims:

– The city violated the original preservation ordinance of 1995 by not having a hearing prior to the amendment of that ordinance. They also claimed that there was not a hearing by the Houston Archaeological and Historical Commission (HAHC) prior to the adoption of the new ordinance, in violation of the original ordinance.

– They claim the new ordinance violates section 13 of the city charter, which forbids zoning.

– They claim the reconsideration process was not legal.

– They claim the city ignored the level of support for reconsideration in the Woodland Heights and Glenbrook Valley and illegally approved their designations as historic.

– They claim the city illegally reduced the value of a property owned by the plaintiffs by not allowing them to demolish the original structure on it.

– They claim federal civil rights violations and Texas electoral code violations.

I’m not a lawyer, so I’ll leave it to those better versed in these matters to evaluate these claims. The suit was assigned to the 215th Civil District Court, for which the judge is Steven Kirkland, and the email that was sent made a big deal out of Judge Kirkland’s friendship with Mayor Parker and his recusal from the lawsuit over the firefighters’ pension fund. I expect the first order of business here will be a motion for him to recuse himself in this suit as well.

That’s all I know at this time. You can find the filing on the District Clerk webpage here, or go to and search for Cause #2012-36113. Depending on who you believe in that HAIF thread, this will either be kicked on a summary judgment motion, or the city will go down like the Titanic. We’ll see who’s right.

Preservation reconsideration

One of the pieces to the new historic preservation ordinance was the designation of a period in which already-existing historic districts could submit a petition to have the city reconsider their status. The deadline for that has passed, and 8 of the existing 16 districts got the necessary 10% of homeowners to sign on.

If owners of 51 percent of the tracts in the district vote against the historic designation, Planning Department Director Marlene Gafrick would recommend City Council repeal the district or shrink its boundaries. The authority to repeal, amend or leave a district intact rests solely with council.

Planning Department spokeswoman Suzy Hartgrove said city staff has yet to verify the signatures in the applications submitted by residents of Avondale West, Boulevard Oaks, First Montrose Commons, Houston Heights East, Houston Heights South, Houston Heights West, Norhill and Westmoreland historic districts.

You can find maps of these districts here.

Officials have said districts could be redrawn to encompass only the blocks where a majority of owners support the new protections.
Bill Baldwin, of Responsible Historic Preservation for Houston, which worked to gather petitions against the new ordinance in the Heights and provided guidance to opponents elsewhere, said he was pleased.

“We always wanted a survey and we’re going to get one, so we’re happy about that,” he said.

Baldwin said he was confident a majority of homeowners in Heights East and South oppose the new ordinance. Avondale West opponent Dana Thorpe said the same for his neighborhood.

“Will 51 percent of those tract owners receive a ballot and return it in opposition? I have no way of knowing,” Baldwin said. “To get 51 percent of people to return a ballot is a monumental task.”

That challenge is encouraging to Bart Truxillo, co-chairman of the Houston Historic Districts Coalition.

“It is so disappointing that people are not understanding the potential good that the districts will do,” he said. “But there’s always going to be 10 percent against everything … 51 percent is a little bit harder.”

We’ll see what happens. I’m rooting for the attempts to change these districts to fall short, but if that’s what the residents want, then so be it. Swamplot has more.

Council passes revised historic preservation ordinance

I’m glad to see that City Council finally passed the long-awaited and much-revised historic preservation ordinance, and even more glad to see that the 90-day waiver for demolitions has been excised, so that what we have now is an actual ordinance and not merely a preservation suggestion. But it’s clear that the fight is a long way from being over.

“In a lot of ways, our work has just begun,” said Bill Baldwin, a Heights-area realtor and founding member of Responsible Historic Preservation for Houston.

Individual property owners should be able to choose to preserve the buildings they own, Baldwin said. He also warned that there will be significantly less investment in historic districts because demolition or even remodeling will be more expensive, and they may become less welcoming to new people.

“I have concerns on my neighborhood’s continued ability to be progressive and meet the needs of a growing and diverse city,” he said. “This is very burdensome for young couples, older couples or others who are facing other alternate choices for their habitation.”

Baldwin said he planned to begin to immediately gather support to rescind the historic status of his neighborhood in the Heights.

Council on Wednesday made that reconsideration process easier in an amendment to Parker’s proposal. Those who want their neighborhood to lose its historic designation must collect the signatures of 10 percent of property owners and turn them in to the city within 30 days. That will trigger a public meeting and a survey from the city’s Planning and Development Department. If 51 percent of property owners oppose the designation, the planning director must either recommend to City Council reducing the size of the district or eliminating it. Council is not bound to follow the recommendation.

We’ll see how that goes – it won’t be long before we know how many neighborhoods will undergo the reconsideration process. If a few wind up being a little smaller, I’ll take that trade. Otherwise, I’m glad this got done. Hair Balls and Swamplot have more, and an email from CM Sue Lovell, sent out later in the day that this passed, is reprinted below.


Signs, signs, everywhere there’s signs

I mentioned there were pro-preservation ordinance signs out there, so I thought I’d show what they look like:

'Yes to protecting our historic districts'

The link is to, the Houston Historic Districts Coalition. It’s a busy little website, especially in contrast to the Responsible Historic Preservation folks. As I said before, I’ve seen a lot more of the RHP signs than I’ve seen of these, and most of these I’ve seen east of Studewood, in the Woodland Heights. West of Studewood, in the Houston Heights, it’s almost all anti-ordinance signs.

The preservationists make their case

Ramona Davis of the Greater Houston Preservation Alliance has a long and detailed op-ed in the Sunday paper that makes the case for the new preservation ordinance currently working its way through Council. Here’s a sample of the bullet points:

• Houston’s preservation ordinance does not govern interiors. Section 33-202(c) of the ordinance specifically states, “Nothing in this article shall be construed to authorize the city to regulate the interior characteristics of any building or structure ” Section 33-241(a)(6) clarifies this further, limiting the Houston Archeological and Historical Commission’s authority to approving changes to exterior architectural features visible from the public right of way. The proposed amendments will not change any of this.

• Houston’s preservation ordinance does not govern paint colors. Section 33-237 of the ordinance states, “[historical commission approval] is not required for ordinary maintenance and repair.” Painting is covered under this provision. In addition, the city of Houston does not require permits for painting one- and two-family residences, so there are no mechanisms for the city to dictate paint colors. The proposed amendments will not change any of this.

• Houston’s preservation ordinance does not govern the type of air conditioning units that can be used in historic buildings. Air conditioners are temporary fixtures, not permanent features; therefore, they do not fall under the historical commission’s authority (Section 33-241). The same is true of porch lights, mailboxes and fences. The proposed amendments will not change this.

• Houston’s preservation ordinance does not require property owners to get historical commission approval for emergency repairs. Section 33-236(i) waives this approval “for achieving compliance with the life safety requirements [set forth in the Building Code].” The proposed amendments will not change this.

It’s quite a definitive statement, with a whole lot of factual assertions being made, many of which are intended to “correct” statements being made by the ordinance’s opponents. I look forward to seeing how they respond to this. I will say, the opposition seems to have the advantage so far in public opinion. I see a lot more of these signs than I do of the more-recently-arrived pro-ordinance signs, and those who want to slow this process down have successfully called for a re-vote on the committee. This is a long way from being over.

Pushback on the historic preservation ordinance

I’m seeing a few of these signs in my neighborhood:

'Responsible Historic Preservation'

The first ones I spotted were in front of houses on Heights Blvd; this one and a couple of others were on Studewood on an empty commercial lot.

Nothing like putting signs on an empty lot

I’ve since seen a few on Yale and 6th Street. The site says it is a “grassroots advocacy group primarily concerned with reasonable and sensible preservation of historic property in Houston”, according to their Who We Are page. I was a little suspicious of this, because I didn’t see the names of any people who were responsible for the group. Their Facebook page didn’t have any names, either. So, I sent them an email asking who their founder is and who their board members are, if they have any. I received the following response from Kathleen Powell:

I’m happy our signs are getting attention. Quite frankly, we are surprised at the number of responses we have received from the signs and from our website since Saturday morning. We are overwhelmed by the response to say the least.

I am one of three founders. The other two are Mary Wassef and Bill Baldwin. We have been keeping an eye on this issue since the spring of 2008 and knew the day was coming that we would have to take some action. All three of us are homeowners of old homes. Mary and I live in a current historic district, the Heights East and Norhill respectively, and Bill lives in a district which has applied for historic designation but he personally has already landmarked his home after doing a major renovation to a splendid old home that was in near tear down condition due to neglect. His home now is a show piece for the neighborhood. We all believe in and want historic preservation. We just want to go about it in a different, more sensible, reasonable, and responsible way.

We are an advocate group in the beginning stages and we have no board of directors. From the looks of things, we will think we will quickly need to become a more formal organization however currently, we are much more concerned with getting the word out about what the city is attempting to do and much too busy with that to worry about a board of directors. We are dancing as fast as we can!

That answered my questions, and I appreciate them getting back to me. (Kathleen also pointed me to this link on their page, which identifies her as its author; it’s linked from the main page on the lower right, but I did not see it when I first visited. She says the website is a work in progress and will have more content on it shortly.) The Baldwin house is in the 200 block of Bayland and it is a jewel – I’ve been in it a couple of times for events. I support efforts to update the existing ordinance, and I like what I’ve seen so far, but I’m certainly open to what they have to say. The goal is the best preservation ordinance we can get, so let’s have the discussion and see where it takes us.