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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 ResponsibleHistoricPreservation.org 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.

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31 Comments

  1. Ron in Houston says:

    Am I the only one who sees a level of irony in Houston having a historical preservation ordinance in a city with no zoning?

  2. Ms. Fancy says:

    Zoning is about land use. Historic district protection is about preserving historical structures and the fabric of historical neighborhoods. Historical Ordinances, unlike zoning, don’t regulate the purpose of how these structures can be used (residential, business or commercial property etc.), they are designed to stabilize and protect the integrity of historical neighborhoods.

  3. Karen says:

    Check out this new website http://www.preservehouston.org

  4. Rose says:

    Ms. Fancy has it right. “Reasonable and sensible preservation of historic property in Houston” currently is to see how fast they can be torn down. Less than 1% of the structures in Houston are inside Historic Districts. Seems like the City could save that many at least.

  5. Many unhappy about the amendment to the ordinance see it as historic zoning. It restricts property rights and that is zoning. The three founders of our organization ALL live in historic homes, one of which is a showplace in the neighborhood. One of the problems with this ordinance is that it isn’t the city who is “saving” these homes. It is the city demanding that homeowners do it at our expense with no tax incentives. Do you realize that most every historic district around the country has a real tax incentive. WE do not. The city wants the HOMEOWNER to save and preserve the history. They simply want to regulate it. As with all governmental bodies, to see what their priority is, look at their budget. There is no budget to save ANYTHING historic. As a homeowner, I don’t think it’s any more my job to save the history of the city than it is any other Houstonian. Why does the city think we should be singled out? Maybe we should put a tax on all Houstonians that goes toward saving our history and they can provide those who have the burden with the benefits of the tax. I am not really proposing this but you cannot FORCE select group of homeowners to do something you don’t ask of the rest of the homeowners without compensation.

  6. dave says:

    What is wrong with repetition on the proposed ordinance? I am very concerned that when Sue Lovell was asked at our meeting she just yelled at the asker….
    Very strange….

  7. Mary Wassef says:

    I am one of the founders of Responsible Historic Preservation for Houston. I don’t live in a “show place”..that would be another one of our founder. I live in a little 1930 bungalow. I have done quite a bit to remove the 1950’s era “improvements” and return that home to the architectural style of the era in which it was built. I live in a neighborhood that has a very large number of contributing homes. We are a very appropriate choice for a historic district. I support preservation, and in fact have supported it with a lot of my time and my money.

    I do not support historic districts that only have 17% contributing structures. I do not support sweeping changes to the historic ordinance that drastically curtail homeowner rights without the permission of those homeowners. I also do not support the new process for creating historic districts which do not involve a large number of homeowners to participate in the decision. Many of Houston’s historic districts are thrilled about the changes and would pass them easily with a re-petition. A few of the districts are too large and do not have the support of most of the neighborhood. In many of those areas there are single blocks that have beautifully restored homes. They can be a historic district on their own. That is the way that most cities do their districts – 500 house districts are the exception not the rule. We don’t need to protect every structure in the Heights. We need to protect the important ones. Old and Historic are not synonymous. Preservation and respecting property rights do not have to be mutually exclusive.

    Another note is that most communities provide tax incentives to historic districts. The city of Houston is woefully inadequate in that regard. If they want to curtail what people can do with their property, then certainly they can put their money where their mouths are…just like those of us who have saved historic homes have done…and invest in the community rather than expecting the entire financial burden to be on the back of homeowners.

  8. Mr. Fancy says:

    Mary
    You made some interesting points, but maybe if we would have had a stronger preservation ordinance in the past, then we wouldn’t be faced with having only 17% contributing structures left in historic districts. BTW, where did you get that percentage from and what districts are you referring too? My historic district is over 90% intact with either contributing or potentially contributing structures.

  9. Norhill Resident says:

    I do not understand what this group is advocating? Mary Wassef comments: “I do not support sweeping changes to the historic ordinance that drastically curtail homeowner rights without the permission of those homeowners. I also do not support the new process for creating historic districts which do not involve a large number of homeowners to participate in the decision.”

    What specifically do you oppose in this new ordinance? Do you want to keep 90 day wait or to close the loophole? My understanding is the new ordinance would require 60 plus percent of the homeowners to create a new historical district versus the current 51 percent. Is 60 plus percent not a “large number of homeowners”? If not, what is?

  10. dave says:

    The new proposal does not require 60 percent of homeowners or property owners. It requires that sixty percent of the respondents agree. i.e. whose post card is received. If three post cards are sent back and it represents 3 of 100 homes two respondents declare the neighborhood historicly regulated.
    Second not a single person in any historic district has signed a petition agreeing that their home be regulated by the historic commision without waiver.
    Third, proponents of the Historic Commision (HAHC) closing the “loophole” collected signatiures from their own neighbors without telling their neighbors that their intent was to tighten restrictions without their neighbors consent or knowledge of the HAHC’s plans.

  11. dave says:

    To: info@responsiblehistoricpreservation.org
    Subject: We never signed
    To whom it may concern,
    My wife and I never signed the petition in the first place. Sherry Beall harassed us on our front porch at least 4 times. She never would take no. My name is James L Ketner and my wife’s name is Jayna L Ketner. Jayna even went down to the hearing when this abomination first passed. They let her ask questions and then proceeded to tell her they did not have to answer her questions. There minds were made up. One thing they did tell her, and this was said by Mr. Beall, If you were so against this then why did you not have any yard signs.
    Thank for looking out for us. We sure would not have known about this until to late. Will you be having any strategy sessions before the August 10th meeting? We will both be at that meeting and ready for battle.
    Our neighbor gave us a sign and we know of two more who would love a sign. Please let me know how to pick them up.
    We just got our so called 90 permit, however, it took almost 9 months to complete. They lost everything we gave them, said that we never came to the historic council ever though we had a dated permit application. And the worst of all made fun of out home the day they held the application meeting. They commented that I did not care or I would have been there. And then proceeded to say that the changes we asked for were not likely to improve our home. They said this with a snicker. This group of people is out of control.

    James L Ketner 307 West 13th Street.

  12. Pam Mercer says:

    There seems to be two different camps for the proposed changes to the historic ordinance. The yard signs all read yes to preservation- I found it confusing. After some reserach, I found this link and it cleared it all up for me!

    http://www.ghpa.org/_blog/GHPA_News/post/Houston's_historic_neighborhoods_are_worth_protecting/

  13. Ken Martin says:

    I have seen new yellow signs that advocate “Yes for Preservation”- they are popping up all over historic districts as well. It seems that the blue signs in the Heights area that are advocating to NOT protect historic districts are mainly in the lots of new construction or vacant lots or on the lots of real estate offices. I am not sure why the new construction residents are so concerned, they are not considered contributing or potentially contributing structures and will not be affected by the ordinance. In my opinion, the homeowners of new construction who oppose the ordinance did their part to contribute to the desctruction of the older homes and the realtors who sold them those new homes were the ones who were exploiting the historic neighborhoods for their own financial gain. Seems ironic to me that all of the sudden the builders and real estate agents are now doing everything they can to block the preservation of the historic neighborhoods when it was indeed the historic neighborhoods that helped to fill up their piggy banks. Please don’t think the public is that naive.

  14. Tom Wells says:

    This argument is not about preservation, it is about control. A few people want to control an entire neighborhood so it meets their personal standards and tastes. I doubt anyone really opposes preservation, but what does that really mean and at what cost. Right now we all have the ability to determine what it means for our personal property. I hope that everyone who supports this change understands that they are basically giving up their property rights to bunch of bureaucrats. The proponents of this ordinance have been less than truthful in their efforts gradually get more and more control. They will not stop until they have every house in the Heights looking the way they think it should.

  15. dave says:

    My family owns a home and other property in the Heights area, some historic other properties are not. I favor preservation but am opposed to the new ordinance because I trust my neighbors judgment more than a 15 person appointed committee and my own judgment when dealing with my own property. The truth is that homeowners who do not want their property values to go down are opposed to the new ordinance. Realtors are opposed because lower values and sales delayed by committee approval mean lower salaries. Libertarians are opposed to a committee telling owners what color to paint their own home etc. (The ordinance says any exterior change must be approved) The truth is that it is ok for people to be motivated by their own freedom and self interest. Proponents of the strict ordinance are interested in something other than their neighbors property values or liberties. However, if this Ordinance is so obviously good for the neighborhood why not insist on a re petition based on the “no means nol” Ordinance. That way we can concentrate on the only issue that matters, Is this ordinance really supported by the Districts?

  16. dave says:

    Tom you are correct.

  17. Sam says:

    Dave, I’m confused. I’ve been reading the ordinance and even with the proposed changes I can’t find anything that mentions what color I paint my house. I think that was debunked awhile ago as being inaccurate and used as a scare tactic.

  18. Don Olson says:

    All of the City Council, Planning Commission and HAHC meetings are televised and aired on Comcast Channel 16. I’ve attended some of these meetings and watch them almost daily on TV and have never heard any of the types of comments Dave is describing happening at his application meeting. And I’ve never heard “snickering”.

  19. Tom Wells says:

    People who buy property which is subject to deed restrictions know what those restrictions are BEFORE they make their investment. In this case, many properties were purchased in the Heights by homeowners without any restrictions. How can anyone justify changing the rules for these homeowners now which could dramatically reduce the value of their homes? I don’t get it. For those elderly homeowners who see selling their home either as a source of retirement or to pass along to their estates, I am afraid the options are going to be limited and as a result the price of their homes will much less than they were hoping.

  20. Rose says:

    A building that has been classified as a “contributing” or “potentially contributing” structure located in a designated City of Houston Historic District does quality for tax incentives if they are renovated. Even work inside qualifies.

    And if the Old 6rh Ward is an example, people’s property values will go Up with more protection, not Down. My friends say they don’t want to live someplace that might wind up having a condo built next to it. That’s why they won’t buy inside the Loop right now.

  21. Ken Martin says:

    The information I have researched is that this would help protect the investments of those seniors that Tom referenced in his earlier post. I have read that builders engage in what they call “block busting” and when demolitions begin to happen it decreases the property value of the nearby homes down to just the “lot value”- basically losing any value that was actually placed on the structure alone. This allows the builders to buy surrounding lots at a cheaper rate b/c the property value lowers and all that is left is land value. The Rutgers study of 8 Texas cities shows property values in historic districts with protection to increase 4-20% over those homes outside historic districts. If their bungalow is truly their investment- having stronger protections will at least help them maintain their property value and more than likely increase it’s market value when they are ready to sell.

  22. Tom Wells says:

    With all due respect, Ken’s argument is absurd. The ability to essentially engage in what you call “block busting,” in non existent in a vibrant market. It would be virtually impossible for a builder to be able to surreptitiously buy enough lots to accomplish this because there are too many buyers and too much information available. Frankly, it is much more likely that this could occur in the future when there will relatively few buyers. A builder might try to purchase enough properties to allow him the ability to go the City and get waivers. Either way, I think this is nonsense. As of the Rutger study, Ken’s selective recital is indicative of the half truths which proponents of this ordinance have fostered. I will point out that the study specifically discusses several “value-detracting” elements of historic designation, most of which will be included in the proposed ordinance. There are also many other aspects of value, but rather than tell you what I think the study says, please go http://geography.rutgers.edu/people/faculty/leichenko/leichenko_coulson_listokin2001.pdf. Unlike the proponents of the ordinance, I believe Houston residents are capable of making their own decisions.

  23. Paul says:

    Here are the problems with the Rutgers study: 1) It is out-of-date. It covers the time period between 1973-1987; before the Berlin wall came down. It covered the time period when the urban areas were in decline. When families moved to the burb’s for better schools, to get away from crime, so their children could play in their yards and people could take evening walks. The establishment of urban historic districts during this time period brought stability to chaos. This study took place during the time period when if you drove through our neighborhood during the day, you had your windows rolled up, your doors locked and you ran all the stop signs and red lights! Heaven forbid, one never drove the streets at night! This is 2010; not 1973, not 1980, not 1987. Some of you probably weren’t even born then. 2) The Rutgers study is based upon statistical data only. Those folks didn’t come down here to look at the houses. Most of their data was obtained from the respective appraisal districts, How many of you have protested your tax values with the appraisal district? Do you feel they even have a clue as to what really goes on in our historic neighborhoods? So there you have it….Rutgers being in New Jersey doing a study down here in my home state depending on our arch enemy, the appraisal district, for statistics that would make little sense if they had spent a little time really looking at our houses and the soul of the neighborhoods. 3) Read the summary at the begiining of the Rutgers paper. “Designation of historic districts is… used as a tool to revive or halt deterioation of central city neighborhoods.” Does the Heights need to be revived? I thought it had been revived! Do we need to halt the deterioration of the neighborhood? I haven’t seen any deterioration of our homes lately in the neighborhood other than some of those folks that don’t have the money to replace their roof or rotten siding. I have seen an increase in the renovation and remodelling of older homes in the Heights. Don’t need some statistician to tell me that; I just drove up and down the streets. The summary also states that “while historic designation is generally thought to have a positive effect on property values, evidence on this issue is mixed.” Duh! Sounds like Rutgers got the advice of a good attorney; leave the back door open! All-in-all, I have read this study over and over and it is not applicable to the Heights or any of the other Houston historic districts, except maybe, the Old 6th Ward. The Heights has thrived due to people wanting to live here. People wanting to raise their children here. Parents raising the bar at the local schools for their children’s education. The revitalization of historic Heights downtown area. Restaurants. Shopping. Now that most of the work is done, the city is saying it is going to protect us from ourselves. How ridiculous! Will this new ordinance as presented create a protected district or a fiefdom. In case you don’t know, a fiefdom is “the estate or domain of a feudal lord. Something over which one dominant person or group exercises control.” I am for responsibe preservation, not for the supression of property rights!

  24. dave says:

    Sam
    Read the Ordinance. Any change to the exterior is required to be approved by the HaHc. Not a scare tactic just true. Also, why would the Commission include a landscape architect?
    Dave
    I do not wish to scare anyone. The ordinance is ambiguous and the commision is an odd group of political appointmentees. I no what is best for my (historic) house. Re petition if this is so obvious. Otherwise we should all be suspicious.
    Dave

  25. Sam says:

    Dave, I HAVE read the ordinance. Have been to HAHC meetings, have spoken at HAHC meetings, watched their broadcasts and have seen that the commission is of all ages and diverse occupations. And they rotate off every couple of years. Repetitioning is unacceptable because you can’t control what is being said to each homeowner to allow for them to make an informed decision. If it came to that, are you going to volunteer to knock on doors?

  26. Paul says:

    Sam
    You hit the nail on the head. The original petitioners have been the ones who have been deciminating the info. Most of their argument is based upon dated, inapplicable material, scare tactics, and spins about tax savings. I do not believe the process for the development of the proposed ordinance has been transparent. I say that the property owners have a right to be informed by all concerned parties, pro and con, and that it is their/our choice as to which way this thing goes. A re-petition is the only fair and equitable way to determine the outcome. Everyone has the right to a second opinion in order for them to formulate their own independent opinion. This is a time for open communication. This is a time to listen as well as letting your voice be heard. Let’s not roll over on this issue without being fully informed. The proposed ordinance is vague and can be interpreted in different ways depending upon who is holding the hammer. It is suppressive in regards to the growth of the Heights neighborhood and its values. It does not provide for responsible preservation. Let’s all be open-minded and figure this out ourselves and leave the city adminstration out of it. The re-petition process will cause more discussion. I love my neighborhood and I certainly wouldn’t mind knocking on doors. Yours can be the first!

  27. Susan Prospere says:

    I have been emailing City Council and have attended the Planning Commission hearing, the general hearing, and a City Council meeting. I have owned an 880 square-foot bungalow in Heights South for over 20 years and have lived there for over 30 years. I have not put any improvements in the home under the supposition that the house was slated for a teardown because of all the new construction in the area. I have been relying on my lot value (based on several appraisals for home equity loans and on sales behind and in front of me). I have gotten a significant home equity loan for a retirement property with the expectation that I would sell my lot and use the money to pay off the loan when I retire. I found out about the historic district during a casual conversation with a friend recently; I have never been asked to sign the original petition.

    I have now talked to a number of people who signed the original petition and have indicated that they did not sign anything that included “protection,” i.e., the inability to demolish a home without an onerous application process for a waiver. They have attempted to retract their signatures but were advised that there was no process for this. I have talked to several lawyers who have questioned the legality of representing that 51% of the homeowners have agreed to a protected district when, in fact, this is not the case. The process was unilateral–collect signatures and then change the terms.

    I do not think it was fair to lump in an area of the Heights that was gerrymandered to achieve the 51% and which contains a large amount of new construction. I do not see the aesthetic value of a block mostly containing new construction and a few teardowns, if any. I am not alone in finding that an inability to demolish my house would have a huge economic impact on future income. I do not believe that aesthetics should trump people’s retirement funds.

    I have been reading cases on regulatory takings that result in significant reductions in financial expectations which indicate that litigation might be successful in these situations to defend one’s property values.

    I do not believe there was sufficient due process and I believe the process borders on fraudulence. I believe the City would be better served by spending time and money on issues that are much more significant and will serve people in much greater need than some homeowners who want to control other people’s properties to satisfy their own aesthetic sensibilities. I do not think that owners of new construction homes should make decisions for people who own teardowns when they benefited from the demolition of old houses. I think people should be ashamed of the devastation they will create in some people’s lives just so they can drive past rundown bungalows on the way to the new Walmart.

    If people want to be surrounded by history, I think almost anywhere else would provide a better environment than Houston. Houston has many good qualities, including diversity, but history is not a strong suit and not worth fighting for. This should be a cost/benefit analysis and the cost to the elderly and not so well off is much greater than the aesthetic benefit.

  28. Maria Isabel says:

    I thought public meetings would give property owners an opportunity to speak, make comments, and ask questions. This has not been my experience with this process.

    I have been attending these meetings and no one has answered my questions.

    How does the amendment to the historical preservation ordinance deals with demo-by-neglect? If property owners wish to protect their historic structures they can do so, there are processes in place to protect your own buildings in Houston, so if you can already protect your own building, why does the city have to mandate historical preservation? Folks that purchased their homes under a clear understanding of existing restrictions are now being forced into new building regulations and design limitations, shouldn’t they be offered a grandfather clause? Are these meetings just a formality? I ask for these meetings failed properties owners representing 240 properties in the Sixth Ward questioning and opposing the “design guidelines”. Why is the booklet called “design guidelines” when in fact the word “shall” in the book refers to new building rules.

    I am reminded of Mayor White’s statement on Oct 3, 2006 in which he said; “I respect people who invest their money in Historic Preservation. I respect less those people who say other people should be mandated to spend their money on Historic Preservation.”

  29. Dave says:

    Sam
    Re-petition is opposed by the proponents of the new “no-means-no Ordinance” because
    they know they will not win. There are documents readily available that prove what I am saying. Those that signed the petitions agreed to a cooling off period that at most caused delay. The new ordinance is complete control over each home owners property by 15 unelected (appointed) people, most of whom do not live in our neighborhoods!
    Why would any homeowner other than a homeowner with connections to the HAHC agree to this system? Why would a person looking for a home to buy agree? Why would a bank finance a loan subjest to this broad control?
    Let’s be honest Re-petition is the only fair way to encumber a persons property but fairnes is not the goal. Control is the goal.

  30. […] 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 […]

  31. […] 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 […]

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