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Saturday, June 22, 2024

Price of Preservation II

It is, perhaps, unfortunate when well-meaning people disagree.

Especially when those disagreements turn bitter and when that bitterness begins to involve lawyers and threats of lawsuits and seeps inexorably into the daily news.

Yet that is what has happened among friends and neighbors in the Original Evansville Preservation District.

First of all it should be understood that no one with a vested interest in this matter wants to see Evansville’s oldest residential neighborhood revert to the run-down, multi-family absentee landlord strip that it had become as recently as 30 years ago. The kind of neighborhood that Washington Avenue between Second Street and South Kentucky Avenue still is.

At issue is what measure of control an unpaid, appointed group of preservation-minded citizens should be allowed to exercise over homeowners’ rights to manage their properties as they see fit.

Several property owners in the Original Evansville Historic Preservation District (which includes S.E. First Street and the Reitz Home Museum) have expressed dismay over what they believe to be Historic Preservation Commission members bullying individual homeowners with unreasonable and inequitable enforcement of existing guidelines, stymieing their efforts to maintain and upgrade their properties, and contributing, ultimately, to a public perception that buying property in the historic district is just not worth the hassles.

This, they claim, is ultimately detrimental to the very cause preservation commissioners are charged with serving – the long-term future and protection of Evansville’s historic neighborhoods.

The qualifications and responsibilities conveyed on members of the preservation commission also are in question.

Since 1974 when the Original Evans-ville Historic District was designated, preservation commission members (there are nine) have been appointed by the mayor.

Qualifications for appointment include having an interest and/or background in historic preservation and living in the city of Evansville. Realistically, Historic Preservation Officer Dennis Au says, an effort is made to include at least one architect and one attorney in the mix, as well as residents who live in the historic district.

Some homeowners have expressed their concerns over the makeup of the commission — citing “outsiders” (anyone who does not live in the historic preservation district) as inappropriate for having the authority to demand measures of upkeep that they do not themselves practice on their own properties.

There are concerns over term limits for commissioners (there currently are none) and attendance (or the lack thereof) at meetings where decisions are rendered that affect homeowners’ decisions about property maintenance choices — the controversial process of obtaining “certificates of appropriateness” from the commissioners before work is begun. [pagebreak]

The above concerns, among others, were vigorously voiced at a public meeting last November when a new “Guidelines and Procedures for Certificates of Appropriateness” document was unveiled.

The document was drawn up by the Evansville Historic Preservation Services office and current members of the Historic Preservation Commission. It was nearly three years in the making.

The guidelines define and therefore protect the appropriateness of all work allowed on the exterior portions of historic properties, including homes, commercial buildings, garages, fencing and similar landscape issues.

There is no attempt to control the interiors of these buildings.

The guidelines are based on documents already in place in other Indiana cities and, indeed, across the country, says Au, who explains its language is consistent with national standards for the protection of historic properties established by the Secretary of the Interior, and all of its enforcement tenets follow the language of existing legislation, namely, Indiana Code 36-7-11, the enabling legislation that allows the designation of local historic districts. This code dates to 1977.

But the new document is a work in progress, Au adds. Final approval, while ultimately within the purview of the preservation commission, will not be acted upon until March 1. In the meantime, copies of the document are available to the general public and comments on its language and content will be received through Jan. 31 (see sidebar on page 46).

This is something J. Reid Williamson Jr., director of Indiana’s Historic Landmarks Foundation, says “should have been done years ago.”

The new set of guidelines has been drafted in an effort to overcome the problems — some real, some perceived — that have plagued the preservation commission and the neighbors it serves for several years.

A lot of the language is consistent with Evansville City codes dating to 1985 and based on the language of the Meridian Street (Indianapolis) preservation code (IC 14-3-3.2-1) first adopted locally in 1974.

The language in the 1985 document says, in essence, that the preservation commission “is enjoined to maintain the long-standing character of the (preservation) area … (that is) the most important collection of 19th and early 20th Century homes in the city.”

The preservation commission is further charged with making “generous allowance for individual preferences consistent with the harmonious aspect of the area. (Commissioners should) cooperate and possibly advise these property owners who want to replace or remodel so that other residents are not outraged by incongruities or encroachments on the comfortable uses of their neighbors.”

The new guidelines currently under review do not alter the tenor of the previous guidelines as they concern specific issues relating to what is and what is not “appropriate” to historic properties within the district.

What the new guidelines will do, says Au, is streamline the process by which homeowners are granted the “certificates of appropriateness” required by law before work is begun on a project that affects the exterior of their homes.

“A lot of the frustration homeowners are expressing is related to their not understanding the process,” Au says, explaining that incomplete applications are not acted upon and this alone can set back a project for weeks and even months at a time. These new guidelines explain in great detail how to complete an application for certificates of appropriateness before coming before the preservation commission, he says.  The proposed new guidelines are exhaustive in their detail.

They outline the kinds of maintenance issues that require no advanced approval and include repairs or replacements that fall under the category of “like for like” where there are no planned changes in the materials or colors selected — for roofing or painting, for example. [pagebreak]

The guidelines make provisions for “staff approval” for many other home maintenance upkeep issues. These can be handled by the historic preservation officer at the Department of Metropolitan Development, bypassing the need to gain approval from the preservation commission.

These projects would cover such issues as choosing new paint colors within established “color pallets.”

“This is new,” Au says, “and it should further streamline the process.”

Bottom line? The goal for the new guidelines is to be very user friendly, he says.

The guidelines do, however, have teeth.

Preservation commissioners have the ability to issue and enforce stop-work orders and levy fines against homeowners who attempt to bypass the regulations governing historic buildings in a preservation district.

This alone has caused a great deal of consternation among rank and file homeowners. And it is an area where better education and communication are necessary, says Michael Osborne, who until Dec. 20 was director of Evansville’s Department of Metropoli-tan Development.

Preservation Commissioner Larry Bristow points out, however, that fines have only been levied one time and that incident occurred when previously approved blueprints for a project were altered by the property owner after-the-fact. Even then, Bristow says, it was a judge, not the preservation commission, who approved the fine.

“We are very, very cautious about this,” he says.

Buying into an historic preservation district presents a unique set of conditions that everyone needs to understand and embrace before they decide to proceed. It is not a good fit for every temperament.

“You have to be willing to give up some of your rights for the betterment of the neighborhood,” says Stuart Sebree, local representative for Indiana’s Historic Landmarks Foundation.

“Owning these homes is a public trust,” says Preservation Commissioner Barbie Garrison.

“These are ‘special needs’ homes,” adds Preservation Commission Vice Chairman Pam Guthrie, who allows that the commission has at times been overly cautious in demanding homeowners choose between doing a project “right” (i.e. to the highest standard of “pure preservation”) and not doing the project at all.

The public perception, she says, is that the commission would prefer to see a structure “fall down around your feet” before attempting a repair that falls short of pure preservation standards. “And that doesn’t help the neighborhood at all,” she says. “I maintain that we need guidelines, but we need to be more flexible.”

“A fine line needs to be walked respecting property rights and not over- controlling what people do with their homes,” Osborne says. “The guidelines are about the protection for you and about what your neighbors do,” he explains. “It’s about setting the standards that you want to achieve and then walking that line.”

“When everyone is held to the same regulations, it is a protection,” Sebree adds. “Property values (in a well-maintained historic preservation neighborhood) NEVER go down.”

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