The City of Houston is pushing to add a new Conservation District to its preservation ordinance to protect the character of neighborhoods whose history has been wiped out by years of redevelopment. During a public hearing on Wednesday, the discussion about Conservation Districts left many council members and residents confused on the process.
Conservation Districts are meant to provide communities with an easier route to preserve their history, which is often not the case with Historic or Heritage designations. With a Conservation Designation, communities can choose between a range of items they want regulated from lot size, building height, fences and walls, and more.
Throughout the meeting, some council members compared the proposed ordinance to a Historic District and wanted to know how the proposed ordinance conflicts with deed restrictions.
"It's not replacing deed restrictions that may be in areas that don’t have deed restrictions, first of all, and it within the deed restrictions will always prevail for this ordinance," said the city's Planning Director Margaret Wallace Brown. "So, this may be an additional set of options for the property owners separate from their deed restrictions, but it does not replace them."
The idea of a conservation district is to allow residents in historic neighborhoods to set specific requirements for preservation. It’s an attempt to help them retain some of the historic character of their communities. Many community members spoke out in support of the idea, but were unsettled by confusing language in the proposed ordinance, including who would have the final decision on a preservation district.
Community members brought forth issues from the draft ordinance that stated the planning director could initiate a Conservation District, but according to the planning department, that language has since been updated to make it more community driven. Another issue that raised a discussion, is that 51% of property owners must approve the Conservation status, if not, the planning director can choose to redraw boundaries or remove the status altogether.
Some council members suggested raising that percentage to 67% like the Historic District requirement. Now, when voting on Conservation status, 75% of council members would also have to vote to approve a communities' status and At-Large Council Member Michael Kubosh said it seemed like a zoning effort.
"I want to underscore this to give some context to why we’re even having this conversation because I think that’s critically important," said Mayor Sylvester Turner. "This conservation district came up pretty much based on conversations that I’ve had with a number of individuals, communities, neighborhoods and historically underrepresented communities and neighborhoods that you will see being gentrified."
Independence Heights, which was the first African-American municipality in Texas, is one community the planning department has been with for months on the Conservation District designation. District H Council Member Carla Cisnerous represents the area and she said in 2012, community members outlined in their Livable Cities Action Plan they were in favor of a Conservation District.
Other neighborhoods like Freedmen's Town, Acres Homes, Piney Point, the Harrisburg/Manchester/Smith Addition are other proposed communities the proposed ordinance could benefit, according to the city.
Tanya Devouse lives in Independence Heights and said a conservation designation is the only option her community has to preserve what’s left of its history.
“It’s neighborhood driven, if 10 people on one side of the street want it and 10 on the other side want it, there’s your percentage right there, so it’s not a competition," she said.
Independence Heights is nationally registered as a Historic District, but locally it's not protected. Devouse said, over the years the community has been slowly losing its character.
"In the community right now, during COVID we saw an aggressive amount of demolitions in our community," said Devouse. "We also saw permits being issued for demolition, and then we saw people whose homes had been destroyed by Winter Storm Uri sold – because they did not have resources to be able to fix their homes."
The city's planning director Margaret Wallce Brown is scheduled to discuss more about the proposed ordinance with the SuperNeighborhood Alliance on March 13.
City Council has not made a final decision on the ordinance and hasn’t indicated when it will be up for a vote.