City Adjusts Historic Designation Rules

Houston City Council has approved a change in a city ordinance that will make it easier for neighborhoods to be designated historic districts. As Houston Public Radio's Jack Williams reports, the move is an effort to preserve, but also enhance some of the city's oldest areas.

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In the past, it has taken what is called a super-majority petition within neighborhoods, or approval by at least 67 percent, to get the historic designation. Under the revised ordinance, neighborhoods that qualify for historic designation will only need a simple majority, or 51 percent by petition. Jill Jewitt is the Mayor's assistant for cultural affairs and helped craft the new rules, which will not affect commercial property.

"People want to retain neighborhood character. They have pride in their neighborhoods that they live in. This ordinance applies to residential neighborhoods and doesn't directly affect those kinds of structures like the River Oaks Theater, but there is increased education with our city as a whole and an increased desire to build a sense of place and I think preservation plays into that."

The amended ordinance also penalizes property owners who demolish structures within designated historic districts without proper approval by preventing them from building on those lots for a two year period. City councilwoman Sue Lovell says the changes let neighborhoods determine their own futures.

"We determined through this whole process that we wanted to give the neighborhoods the right to self-determination and to me that's the strongest form of property rights is for someone to be able determine what sort of district they'll live in and what they can do with their property. So I want everyone to understand that this whole ordinance is around neighborhoods having the right to self-determination."

The only no-vote on council came from Michael Berry, who says it's important that property owners have the right to do what they want with old homes, even if they are considered to be in historic areas.

"You get a nice sense of place with historic structures and I would hope the free market would value that but most important is that people have the opportunity to exercise their independent property rights and that government not tell them what to do on there."

A separate ordinance that would provide significant tax incentives for commercial property owners who spare historic buildings is in the planning stages and could come before council soon. Those incentives would be aimed at saving structures like the River Oaks Theater that would otherwise be torn down and replaced with more lucrative projects.

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