Note: Planning and development weighs in. See update below.
Tonight’s 6:30 meeting at the George R. Brown is the only public meeting scheduled to discuss the latest round of proposed changes to Houston’s preservation ordinance, dubbed the “final draft” in some documents. The planning department came out with this revised set of proposed amendments last week, but figuring out what’s in them isn’t so easy. The department hasn’t created any summaries of the new proposal — thought it did for the last round — and it hasn’t specified what’s different from the earlier proposed amendments either. Even more fun: The new amendments have only been released as image scans, making text searching — and what should be the simple task of comparing one set of amendments to the other — a not-so-simple task.
So what’s in the latest round of proposed changes? Swamplot outlined the new proposed method for existing historic districts to “reconsider” — and possibly shed — their historic designation last week. But since then, the department has only released a presentation given by the planning director. Working from that, here’s the best summary of the rest of the provisions we can piece together:
- Property owners within a district need only gather signatures of property owners representing 10 percent of the tracts in a district to make an application for historic district status. If a property has more than one owner, only a single signature is required. The Historic and Archaeological Commission (HAHC) can also file an application to create a district.
- New historic districts will be limited to 400 tracts (500 if they’re all in a single subdivision) in a single contiguous mass — they can’t contain any holes.
- Once the planning director determines a submitted application is complete, she has 15 days to send out notice to all area residents of at least one public meeting.
- After the meeting, it’s vote-by-mail time: All residents will receive a voting card to send in, indicating whether they are in favor of or opposed to the proposed district.
- If the owners of 60 percent of the tracts in a particular district return cards indicating they are in favor of designation, the planning director can forward the application to the HAHC for a public hearing and a vote. Public properties and right-of-way can be included in a district, but don’t count for determining support. If there’s less than 60-percent support for a proposed district, the director can reshape the proposed district so there is — before forwarding the application to the HAHC. Applications approved by the HAHC go to city council for a final vote.
- Any district or portion of a district that fails to meet the requirements can simply wait a year and try again.
- Within a historic district, approval from the HAHC won’t be required for painting or “ordinary maintenance and repair” to fences, landscaping, HVAC units, light fixtures, porch ceiling fans, and roofs. Reconstruction after a storm or fire or other damage won’t need approval either. But all new construction and all alterations and additions will.
- A few “formulas” indicate the kinds of additions the HAHC is required to approve, provided materials in front of the additions remain in place, the new materials are “visually compatible,” and a few other conditions are met:
- “Camelback” additions that begin 50 percent or more of the length of the building from the front
- Additional stories that are 125 percent or less of the height of the existing story
- Side additions that begin 30 percent or more of the length of the building from the front, and whose width is no more than 15 percent of the width of the original structure.
- For structures considered “noncontributing,” additions will need to conform to typical setbacks and eave heights in a district. Additions to noncontributing commercial buildings that are taller than the existing structure won’t be allowed.
- New construction in a historic district will need to match existing setbacks, and have “compatible” exterior features and proportions. New homes will need to conform to existing eave heights of contributing homes in the district — no matter how often the neighborhood floods. New commercial structures will have to fit at or below the height of any other existing commercial properties in a district.
- Noncontributing structures in a district won’t need special permission from the HAHC to be demolished. But for contributing structures, demolitions will require more paperwork, including rehab cost estimates and salvage plans.
- Demolition “by neglect” is a no-no.
Update, 9/24: P&D public affairs manager Suzy Hartgrove writes in with a few clarifications:
The “cards” will actually be paper ballots.
You make it sound like we will only have one meeting in the proposed district and then move onto the balloting process. We will come out as many times as necessary to help the residents understand the process and the ordinance.
After the ballots are returned, we will map the results and will issue a recommendation to HAHC which could include a revision to the boundary that would reflect the core support of 60% for the proposed district.
New construction in a historic district will need to conform to a design guideline based on elements of contributing structures of homes within the district. (Flooding is not part of the ordinance and I don’t understand what the flooding comment means on that one post.)
Demolition of non contributing structures in a historic district does not need a Certificate of Appropriateness but a demolition of a contributing structure will. Specific criteria are being proposed so the Commission will be able to make an informed decision on whether to grant a CoA for a historic building demolition.