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Historic designation supporters fire back against misinformation

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

The debate over how neighborhoods obtain local historic designation in St. Pete is heating up. City Council is set to decide on August 20 whether it should be easier for neighborhoods to obtain the designation, but groups have popped up opposing changes to the current ordinance.

In 2010, a process was established for neighborhoods to apply for local historic designation. That process requires neighborhoods to receive a 2/3 vote from all homeowners within its boundaries in order to move the process.

Preservationists and their allies are asking the city to change that because it’s nearly impossible to meet the minimum threshold of support. Preservationists are asking that instead of requiring a majority of all homeowners to vote in support to obtain designation, the city require a majority of only those who actually voted.

As it stands now, not voting is basically the same thing as voting no.

There are currently only three neighborhoods with local historic designation – Granada Terrace, Roser Park and Lang’s Bungalow Court.

The issue has gained opposition from the Pinellas Realtor Association and the St. Pete Chamber of Commerce. Those groups cite property right concerns. But supporters of changes are fighting back calling a recent mailing and robo-call push a series of mis-information.

In a flier sent to residents last week, PRO wrote, “if two thirds of the households in your neighborhood vote yes, your neighborhood gets designated for Historic Preservation. The City Council is considering changing the criteria for Historic Preservation to just a simple majority of responding houses.”

Supporters argue this is just simply false. And St. Pete’s manager of urban planning and historic preservation, Derek Kilborn, agreed it is misleading. The problem is, the current process only begins a long road to designation. City Council approval is needed to make the designation final. The language on the flier could give residents the false understanding that the vote is the only step in creating a historic designation.

The statement also implies that the proposed change would shift the 2/3 majority vote among all homeowners to just a simple majority – 50 percent plus one – of those who actually voted.

As Neurosurgeon David McKalip points out in his Sunbeam Times blog, that could mean only a handful of residents would determine whether a neighborhood receives historic designation. For example, if only 30 people in a neighborhood vote, that means only 16 would have to vote in favor of the designation.

Put that way, it certainly doesn’t sound fair. However, according to Kilborn, City Council raised the same concern. During a Public Services and Infrastructure meeting last week, council discussed including a minimum threshold of participation from the community.

Under that plan, neighborhoods would have to issue a Demonstration of Support from a minimum of 30 percent of affected homeowners, including those who may not live in the homes they own like snowbirds or landlords. From their a minimum vote among respondents would be determined by City Council. That could be a simple majority or the 2/3 currently required.

But supporters say that’s not the only misinformation. The PRO flier claims homeowners would wind up saddled with heightened construction costs for renovations.

“Historic designation isn’t going to change the costs dramatically, if at all,” said former City Council member and historic home renovator Jeff Danner.

On his blog, McKalip displays a fee schedule for acquiring a “Certificate of Appropriateness” to complete construction projects on homes in historically designated neighborhoods. There are various fees ranging from $50 for a general application for staff review to $1,000 for demolition of a primary structure requiring commission review.

McKalip writes in a caption under the screen shot, “what if you were told to spend $350, hire a lawyer, inform your neighbors, go to a city bureaucrat and a political committee to get a new shrubbery or new shingles on your roof? Welcome to your new “historic district.”

The fee schedule is real and owners in historically designated neighborhoods do have to pay certain extra fees in order to complete major construction projects on their homes that could change the historic look of the original structure.

But a new shrubbery or a replaced roof is not included in that fee schedule. Nor is painting your home. And for projects that do require review, most only require a basic staff review, which is only $50. The more expensive commission review projects are reserved for things like new construction, above ground pools or changes to the overall shape or look of a home.

“Far fewer things have to go to the board,” Danner said. “It makes it cheaper, easier and more streamlined.”

The PRO flier also claims historic designation leads to higher property insurance rates. That’s a claim several supporters debunk.

“If your house is a 1920s house, you’re going to pay a premium,” said John Barie, a member of PRO who doesn’t agree with the organization’s opposition. “But it’s the house, not the neighborhood.”

He said insurance agents don’t even ask about neighborhood location on applications, just an address.

And some opponents also argue historic designation would drive property values down.

“It’s quite the opposite,” said Ryan Malloy, a realtor specializing in historic homes. “The historic neighborhoods, especially in St. Pete, have seen nothing but property increases over time. They rise faster typically than non-designated neighborhoods.”

He said some homes in Roser Park list for more than $400,000. Similar homes in neighboring areas go for far less.

Kilborn, from the City, confirmed one claim opponents make. McKalip wrote on his blog that Grenada Terrace is actually in the process of trying to rescind its designation.

“There is some effort to do that,” Kilborn said.

But McKalip claims residents must prove there is no longer historical significance to do that. Under the proposed changes, it wouldn’t just make it easier to obtain designation; it would also be easier to ditch it because the process would be the same.

However, Kilborn said McKalip’s assertion wasn’t entirely correct. Grenada Terrace would likely lose an application bid to shed its historic designation under the current process because that board is bound to only looking at technical criteria.

But it’s City Council that makes the ultimate decision. There, board members can consider requests from residents and would vote on the matter with their input in mind.

Supporters of the proposed change say they are also willing to compromise to find a way to make the ordinance work for everyone.

City Council is set to vote on the ordinance August 20.

Janelle Irwin has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. She also hosts a weekly political talk show on WMNF Community radio. Janelle formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for Patch.com and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a diehard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and the ongoing Pier debacle. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also the devoted mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder. To contact, email janelle@floridapolitics.com.

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