There is a great deal of misinformation circulating about the proposed amendments to Houston’s historic preservation ordinance. GHPA addressed these misrepresentations in a guest editorial by Executive Director Ramona Davis published in the Aug. 15 Houston Chronicle, which is reprinted here.
It is important for preservation supporters to understand what the ordinance does and does not do, and to share this information with other Houstonians.
GHPA will continue to provide its members with updates on this issue.
Scare tactics cloud Houston preservation debate
Houston Chronicle, Aug. 15, 2010
Houstonians are once again engaged in a debate over proposed changes to the city’s historic preservation ordinance, and once again, the public is facing a barrage of misinformation, disinformation and scare tactics from opponents to the amendments. It is not clear whether the leaders of this campaign are woefully misinformed or willfully misleading the public, but it is obvious that they either have not read Houston’s preservation ordinance and the proposed amendments or that they are intentionally distorting the issue. The Greater Houston Preservation Alliance is determined to clear up these misrepresentations.
• The proposed amendments apply only to properties in designated city of Houston historic districts. To date, all of the designated historic districts combined comprise less than one square mile of the 640 square miles within Houston’s city limits. If City Council eventually approves the three districts now awaiting designation, historic districts will still cover less than two square miles of the city.
• Houston’s preservation ordinance does not allow the city to designate historic districts without the approval of a majority of the affected property owners. The proposed amendments will not change this. Creeping historic districts will not slowly engulf the city.
• 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.
• The proposed amendments to the ordinance will not require property owners in historic districts to restore, renovate, repair or rehabilitate their properties. When a property owner voluntarily embarks on a project, Section 33-240 of the preservation ordinance states that the historical commission “shall take into consideration the current needs of the applicant and shall be sensitive to the property owner’s financial condition” when making its decisions.
• The ordinance allows and will continue to allow property owners to construct additions to expand the size of historic houses and buildings. The Houston Archeological and Historical Commission has approved many such projects; The Greater Houston Preservation Alliance has recognized some of these projects with Good Brick Awards for excellence in historic preservation.
• The proposed amendments do not ban all demolition or outlaw new construction in designated historic districts. The proposed amendments do expand protections already in place in parts of the Old Sixth Ward to the city’s other historic districts.
• The proposed amendments do clarify requirements for new construction in designated districts. To maintain the historic character of the districts, new construction would be required to be compatible with the setbacks, exterior features and proportions of historic buildings sharing the blockface. Similar protections have existed for decades in the deed restrictions of Houston subdivisions from Kingwood to Clear Lake.
Draconian measures are already in place in many of Houston’s older neighborhoods, but they have nothing to do with the preservation ordinance. They are the restrictions enforced in the townhouse and condominium developments being built in and around our historic districts. Approved paint schemes, acceptable types and placement of plants, and bans on additions, alterations and even basketball goals are justified as necessary for protecting a homeowner’s investment. Yet opponents of the ordinance revisions warn that instituting much less stringent protections for historic properties in the same neighborhood would have disastrous results.
Some of the material being circulated contradicts itself. For example, the home page of the main website opposing the amendments states, incorrectly, that Houston does not offer any incentives for preservation. The same website’s “Questions & Answers” section states, again incorrectly, that property owners must invest $50,000 to qualify for the incentives. In fact, the value of the city’s tax exemption is based on a sliding scale involving the assessed value of the historic building compared to the amount invested in an approved rehabilitation.
Much is being made about the penalties for violating the preservation ordinance, but these have also been misstated. According to Section 33-203(c), violations of the preservation ordinance “shall be punished by a fine of not less than $50 nor more than $500 for each violation.” Fines accrue until the violations are addressed. These are the standard fines set for violations of most city ordinances. For example, the dog and cat defecation ordinance (pooper-scooper law) specifies fines of not less than $75 and no more than $500 (Code of Ordinances Section 6-24). The fines for failing to scoop accrue as violations accumulate.
Preservation supporters do have concerns about the amendments. When the current historic districts were created, the city required a majority or, in some cases, a super majority of property owners to sign and submit petitions requesting district designation, a process that could take months, if not years, to accomplish. The proposed amendments would institute a postcard reply system that would allow district designation to be rescinded if 67 percent of the property owners who return cards request it. If the city required a majority of property owners to petition for district designation, rescinding the designation should require petitions from a majority of property owners as well, not simply 67 percent of those who return a postcard.
Houston has matured as a city to the point that it is addressing preservation in a meaningful way. Historic preservation has gained enough acceptance and support in the community that even those opposing the ordinance amendments feel compelled to say they are for preservation.
Houston’s historic neighborhoods are worth protecting. They are also worthy of an honest, adult discussion.
Photo: Westmoreland Historic District (photo by Jim Parsons)