Friday, November 10, 2017

A blog post from yesterday: Historic preservation, historic districts, and an oft-told meme “opt out” rears up again.


But first, an explanation and some clarification. 

The post that’s getting so much attention today is below following a very short video. Why is it getting so much attention? Because of the words “opt out” and another thing called the Secretary of Interior standards for historic preservation. The words opt out are very catchy and grab the public’s attention (you’ll read more about “opt out” later on), especially all those who are excited about the prospect of ‘opting out’ of historic preservation. And just as misleading and misunderstood are the Secretary of Interior standards for historic preservation, which are in fact subjective standards.

Despite what government staff and even knowledgeable proponents of historic preservation would like you to believe, Moses did not write the Secretary of Interior standards. These “standards” are meant to be guidelines. Just like history marches on so do construction materials and better, more efficient ways to protect ones property and provide for ones safety.

Just like “opt out” is a meaningless term that no one can define or explain in a legally-defined way, the words “Secretary of Interior standards” are used reverently by others like they were the Dead Sea Scrolls. The way to solve the problem with historic preservation here in the City of Lake Worth is explained below and we’ll get a lot more accomplished a lot more quickly by “opting out” of using empty rhetoric and misunderstood, confusing words or ‘standards’.

When a city, like the City of Lake Worth for example, decides to veer from the Secretary of Interior Standards there is no penalty like eternal damnation, a purgatory, or even a time-out penalty, forced to stand in a corner at City Hall for ten minutes. However some of those administering the historic preservation programs may get a little annoyed and call someone at the State level to complain but that’s about the extent of it, except of course more lawyers will need to be paid and more Commission meetings held with seemingly endless Kabuki-style debate on the dais:



So. Without further ado. . .

The blog post from yesterday about “Opt Out!”

As explained many times before on this blog a meme is a “word virus”, a word or words transmitted from one person or entity to other people or groups; some memes can spread like wildfire. Many of you in the City of Lake Worth will be familiar with the last time “Opt Out!” was the meme two years ago which ultimately prompted a legal opinion from the law firm Torcivia, Donlon, Goddeau & Ansay:

Ms. Squire states that she did not receive an “opt out” form to opt out of having her property included in the designation of the Northeast Lucerne Townsite Local Historic District.

Why the meme “opt out” is back is no surprise to anyone. Because the City of Lake Worth’s historic preservation program has been so poorly managed, in particular the last 2½ years, the public is completely fed up with it. And so are our elected officials. Back in 1998–1999 I was part of the effort that helped start the historic preservation program here in this City. And I’m not happy at all with what’s become of this program. I know. Because I get the phone calls and emails too. But more about “opt out” below.

The topic of historic preservation and historic districts is now a major topic of discussion and debate at the City Commission and a reporter from NBC5/WPTV was there on Tuesday night, November 7th. As expected, reporter Andrew Lofholm’s news segment finally got the attention of the beat reporter from The Palm Beach Post and a short article was hurriedly put together and appears in today’s (11/9) print edition.

Recommend everyone watch the news segment that appeared on the 11:00 news following the Commission meeting last Tuesday, click on this link to see the video produced by WPTV.

Related to the changes in the historic preservation ordinance, I couldn’t help but notice a few things. First and most glaring, Pamala Ryan, a senior associate lawyer for City Attorney Glen Torcivia gave the presentation for the City’s Community Sustainability Historic Preservation Dept. I can’t recall anything like this ever happening before. The staff at the Historic Preservation Dept. should have been out front in the lead taking the questions and “slings and arrows”, not an attorney. Someone on the dais should have at least questioned why this was the case last Tuesday.

Second reading of “Ordinance No. 2017-27 - amending Chapter 23 Land Development Regulations, Article 5 Supplemental Regulations, Section 23.5-4 Historic Preservation” will be held at the City Commission on December 5th. It will be interesting to see who takes the lead next time.

Now back to the issue, letting residents “opt out”
of historic districts.

Many who purchase a home or property in a historic district are “buying into” historic preservation. But what most people weren’t expecting is the ambiguity, arbitrary decision-making, lack of design guidelines, and bad customer service from what many residents have complained about as well: an unsympathetic historic preservation staff.

It was Commissioner Omari Hardy who opened the door to the possibility of the City allowing property owners to “opt out” of a historic district. Hardy’s idea is not a new one by any means. But it needs to be noted the courts have never ruled on such a thing since the state legislature has never taken up this issue. The practical impact of ‘opting out’ would mean if you didn’t want your home improvements to be reviewed according to the Secretary of Interior standards for historic preservation you could just “opt out” and make whatever changes to your house or commercial structure without regard to those standards.

On the positive side this would greatly facilitate the speed and expense of approval for any style of window, door, roofing material, or siding, just a few examples, in terms of the actual building materials. It would also allow you to construct any size of addition in any style that is not representative of the original historic structure. Scale or size of the addition would not be a factor to be considered if it followed the City’s guidelines for home construction. One could basically build anything on their property as long as it met the standards and regulations contained in the zoning code.

Over time your neighbor and other houses on your block could also choose to “opt out” and be free of such standards. They could also demolish their structure that was formerly in a historic district and build a new building that would only have to meet the current standards contained in the City’s land development regulations for that zoning district. Houses built in the 1920s through the 1960s would not need an extra level of approval for demolition. They could just be torn down with a demolition permit issued by the building department.

But leaving the historic preservation staff out of this for a moment, imagine how that would impact the City of Lake Worth’s character? A group of volunteers has successfully produced and marketed a book called “The Cottages of Lake Worth — Living Large in Small Spaces”. This coffee table book has been marketing the character and charm of this City. What if future owners of these cottages just choose to “opt out” of the historic district they are in? Suddenly we are then a vibrant and charming historic city threatened by losing what made it so special in the first place, its history.

An analogy I’ve used is a “rowboat with fifty small holes”. Allowing property owners to “opt out” of a historic district would sink the entire historic preservation program. The problem IS NOT the historic program, the problem is how it’s been implemented the last 2½ years or so. The backlash we are seeing against the historic preservation program, and the discussion again of allowing homeowners to “opt out”, is due to an overzealous staff administering the program.

Historic districts have been shown to help sustain and increase property values around the nation where they are established and run properly for the benefit of everyone. That can all be destroyed by what is perceived as an overly-critical and time-consuming process experienced by the property owner. What I fear now is the City of Lake Worth is creating a small army of ambassadors telling everyone here in Florida, and beyond, how terrible it is to purchase a home in a historic district.

The changes approved last Tuesday night, passed unanimously on first reading, will make the historic preservation ordinance easier for people to understand and it gives priority to the more important façades of structures, e.g., the front of the home and less so to other parts of the structure. This should make the process easier to administer and more understandable for the property owner.

And don’t forget you can get a property tax exemption on your City taxes for a period of ten years based on the value of improvements to your historic property. That would be lost if people chose to “opt out” of a historic district.

And lastly, when it comes to the need for impact windows and doors and homes that need new roofs — it’s only a matter of time before we get a direct hit by a hurricane — and as the city of Charleston, S.C. is coming to grips with addressing problems and public concern about its own world-renowned historic preservation program:

“We’re losing something
either way.”

2 comments:

TriExpert said...

Wes, do you have an example at hand of a peer municipality which takes a saner approach? Somebody has to have survived these wars and thereby become wiser.

Wes Blackman said...

Yes, as a matter of fact, there is one municipality to the south of us, in Palm Beach County, that takes a more realistic approach. It is fresh in my mind since the comparison became clear just this week. I'm doing some due diligence research for a property within a historic district there. Without getting too "in the weeds", the State of Florida has a Historic Preservation Office. You can ask for the "Master Site File" (MSF) for any property by address. If there is one, they will send it to you very quickly and it will contain information on the degree to which a property is considered "contributing" to a historic district or whether it is "non-contributing." Usually the standards are less onerous for "non-contributing" structures. That was made clear in the new ordinance for Lake Worth that is going to second reading, by the way.

In this case, the last survey done according to the State was 2014 and the property was considered a "contributing" resource. I meet with the staff of this particular municipality and pointed this relatively "new" report out that I had found. They took the position that the property, in this professional's eyes, is still technically "non-contributing" as the last update to the survey for that particular district was done in 2009 and the last MSF for that property had been done in 2008. The city said that it could not go by the later report until in was formally included in an Ordinance that amends the entire district, which is the correct way to do things.

I can tell you that here, that particular property would definitely be considered contributing based upon the later report, regardless of whether it was indicated as "non-contributing" in the designation report for a district. I've seen it happen!

I hope that wasn't too technical an answer and that you could identify the contrast.