Sunday, August 20, 2017

Just in case you missed this from yesterday. . .

Blog post titled, “City’s Historic Preservation program: Regulations aren’t the problem. It’s administration of the regulations.”

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Allow me to share a few thoughts regarding the recent discussions of changes to the City of Lake Worth’s historic preservation ordinance. This most recent kerfuffle has made news in the Post but this all goes back much further. The current beat reporter from the Post was here in January 2016 when things “came to a head” in the City’s South Palm Park neighborhood, but what happened didn’t make the news back then.

The reverberations from that event still continue
to this day (after reading this blog post come back,
use this link
and learn more about what happened
in January 2016)

Some of you may recall, for varying lengths of time, I was on the combined Planning & Zoning and Historic Preservation boards. It was later the Historic Resource Preservation Board (HRPB) was separated from P&Z and became its own entity. I also served as Chair over most of that time.

If you’ve been paying attention, the City staff and HRPB have put together some changes that would create more of a distinction between contributing and non-contributing properties within historic districts. Those changes would also provide a hierarchy of what requires more attention and less attention as it relates to approving changes to a property within historic districts.

The intent of those changes is good,
but misses the mark.

Staff, somewhat after the fact, presented those proposed changes to the State Historic Preservation Office for their opinion on whether or not they would negatively impact the City’s Certified Local Government status. Of course, the answer was the state had some concerns about what they saw as the loosening of restrictions, as is the nature of any bureaucratic organization charged with enforcing certain standards. Bureaucracies are not in the business of giving up control.

There does seem to be hope a discussion can continue between the state and the City staff. Some agreement may be reached on acceptable language. I won’t “get into the weeds” of what might be possible or even workable given the current situation vis-à-vis the public mood as it is, which is very unhappy and impatient.

I could examine possible language to the ordinance. But I won’t. Because that misses the real issue.

The real issue at play here is the increasingly over-zealous enforcement of provisions in the historic preservation ordinance and the importance or weight of staff’s opinion of changes to structures affected. Let’s start backwards and work forward as it relates to the customer/resident/property owner experience as they approach the staff in charge of administering the City’s historic preservation ordinance. 

If the phones of the city manager, mayor and commissioners are ringing with complaints about the time it takes to go through the historic preservation review process, there is something wrong with the way the regulations are being implemented. 

For example, it is not “the regulations” that do not return phone calls or emails in a timely basis. That is the staff’s job.

One of the reasons I chose to resign from the HRPB two years ago was because I was getting 4–5 calls a week from people stuck in what seemed a never-ending circle of subjective reasons why they couldn’t do something to improve their property in a historic district. At the same time, at least 80 percent of the time our meeting packets would be filled with staff reports carrying recommendations for denial. This set up an adversarial relationship between the City and residents trying to improve their properties, with the HRPB to be the ultimate arbitration authority in the matter.

[It needs to be pointed out, the HRPB is a volunteer board. It’s no small sacrifice of time and energy to be a member of the HRPB, or any City volunteer board for that matter.]

As each case is different, there are seven members on the board with seven varying points of view, consistency is difficult to achieve each and every time. A difficult case shouldn’t be an automatic appearance at the HRPB. Staff is paid to make hard decisions, and yes, sometimes it’s unpleasant to work with the public. That’s why they call it “public service”.

One solution would be to have a set of “design guidelines” that would clearly lay out what would be permitted and what would not be. There are guidelines in existence for properties along major thoroughfares in the City and in College Park as well. Those were done soon after the initial adoption of the historic preservation program in 2000 or so.

When asked for design guidelines for other areas governed by historic district regulations the oft-heard reply was “We didn’t have the staff”, “Not enough money to complete them”, or “The state was cutting back on grant money”, etc. etc. etc. Understandable and comprehensive guidelines never rose to a “line item in the budget” priority.

The City does have a grant now from the state to prepare guidelines and work should commence soon if it hasn’t begun already.

Why the City spent $14,000 on an outside attorney to do the work to change that ordinance language, then present those changes to not one but two HRPB meetings and then the City Commission — only to be told by the state we couldn’t do that, possibly risking the loss our Certified Local Government status — one can only speculate. But it doesn’t look good. Not what one would expect from a professional staff and well-paid attorneys.

I suggest the City staff closely examine the process as seen from the property owner/applicant experience with the historic preservation program.

When these “customers” receive what is assumed to be a default “No” from staff they are left to put together an application, with attendant fees, and present that application to the HRPB. By doing so they are putting their own time, money, and effort into a request that may or may not even be approved by the board. The very act of applying carries its own risk.

You also have to overcome what is most likely a negative recommendation from staff. The process itself is more onerous now than it has ever been. I’ve had the experience of putting together a few applications over time.

The simple summary is this: It is not the regulations that are the problem. It is how the regulations are being administered.

And lastly, having a historic preservation program does increase property values over time as many studies have shown. A study to try and prove otherwise would be a waste of time and energy.

Going forward, imagine if there were sets of guidelines for historic preservation everyone could follow? Not just for the public and the HRPB, but for the City staff as well.