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Bob Griendling: Stop, look and listen before crossing local historic district threshold

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by


The devil is always in the details. And when it comes to the proposed historic preservation ordinance, especially the application threshold, the details are many. Depending on how far one is willing to dig into those details determines whether so-called misinformation is actually critical and valid information.

I have looked at the details. I have read the ordinance many times, asked questions in one-on-one meetings with Derek Kilborn, the city’s chief historic preservationist. I’ve talked to many contractors, Realtors, insurance brokers, preservation experts in other cities and with many of my fellow homeowners, as well as those already living in the city’s local historic districts (LHD) or who have lived in them in other cities.

Our organization, Protect St. Pete’s Property Rights, believes the current threshold for initiating an LHD designation is sufficient and needn’t be lowered for many reasons.

Designating a neighborhood as an LHD is not impossible; we have three of them in St. Pete. But they are not huge neighborhoods, the largest being Granada Terrace with 70 properties. On the other hand, it should be hard to designate an area the size of Old Northeast, for example, with its 2,200 properties. If two-thirds of them approve applying, that still leaves nearly 700 property owners with restricted rights over their objection.

The decision should not be an election. If an applicant wants to restrict property rights, they should get affirmative consent. If the owner doesn’t consent, you don’t have her permission. Property owners shouldn’t be required to vote to defend their rights.

Becoming an LHD is final. There is no turning back. As Mr. Kilborn told Granada Terrace residents, the LHD property owners would have to prove that their homes are no longer historic. Call it a Catch-22: How do you prove that homes considered historic 25 years ago are no longer historic?

The process as described in the Aug. 8th post here is actually more nuanced. The owners have really only one shot at the apple: the vote to apply. After that, the application is reviewed by the staff of historic preservationists, who of course, love LHDs. The next step is the key: the vote by the Community Planning and Preservation Commission (CPPC). It is stacked with preservationists and their vote matters more than the City Council’s. Even if the CPPC approves an application by only a 4-3 vote, the City Council can overturn the CPPC decision only by a super majority vote—six of the eight Council members. So the real power resides with the CPPC, which is appointed by the mayor and not answerable to citizens.

Why do you think the proposed ordinance allows that once an application is deemed complete by the historic preservation staff — but before any review of its substance — the city will cease issuing permits for renovations or additions in that neighborhood, granting preservationists exactly what they want? They and the city know that the application is not a “long road to designation” but a quick ride to restrictions. That is why the decision to apply is the only true voice citizens have in this process.

One can understand why Jeff Danner, a historic home renovator, would want to downplay the costs, but his statement that “Historic designation isn’t going to change the costs dramatically, if at all,” is contradicted by home renovators and general contractors across the board. That’s because of a key provision in the ordinance: When modifying or repairing home exteriors in LHDs, owners must follow the dictum to “repair rather than replace,” which is mandated by the U.S. Department of Interior. And to protect its “certified local government” (CLG) status, the city must adhere to DOI standards. Otherwise, it risks being cut off from federal grant money that’s available to CLGs to establish and maintain LHDs.

As to the costs of repairs and renovations of homes in an LHD, it can be a “frustrating and costly experience,” according to John Reynolds, an associate broker with First Team Real Estate in Long Beach, Calif., who is quoted in a article on historic homes.

“If you are going to restore the home or add onto it, it’s going to cost you more money than an equivalent home somewhere else in town because the guidelines you’re going to have to follow are more expensive,” Reynolds said.

The increase in homeowner’s insurance premiums is also very real, according to Paula Blanda, vice president in St. Petersburg for West Coast Insurance Group. “Once your home is in a local historic district, your insurance premiums will easily double,” Blanda said. “And it will be harder to find companies willing to insure you. Many carriers won’t write policies in LHDs.”

Finally, the oft repeated opinion that homes in LHDs increase in value over similar homes meets strong resistance from Realtors and property appraisers. If values did increase, why would Realtors, who are paid a commission based on the sales price of homes, be opposed to making it easier to become an LHD? Granada Terrace residents have been told by Realtors that it’s hard to find buyers for historic homes.

And 19 St. Petersburg property appraisers have written to the City Council, “In our unbiased opinion, we find that such LHD impacts hurt property values. Furthermore, articles in the Appraisal Journal suggest an 8 percent reduction in property values … and do not support any dubious atypical increase value due to a LHD designation. Studies cited by [St. Petersburg Preservation Inc.] that suggest modest 2-5 percent increases in home values rely on tax assessment or ignore the excessive cost of compliance.”

But in the end, those of us concerned about LHD designation believe the process of establishing one should be hard and should require the affirmative consent of a substantial majority of property owners. Two-thirds of ALL owners suits us just fine.

After all, if you’re going to a destination of no return, you need to know precisely where you’re going.

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