Houston City Council voted on Wednesday to approve a pilot program that will designate six communities as Conservation Districts, an easier tool to provide residents with a better way of protecting the character and history of their neighborhoods.
The vote comes just one week after being "tagged" by At-Large Council Member Michael Kubosh who expressed concerns over how the six communities identified which include Independence Heights, Freedmen's Town, Acres Homes, Magnolia Park/Manchester, Pleasantville, and Piney Point were chosen.
"This is so important to have this conservation district to protect historic neighborhoods within loop 610," said District I Council Member Robert Gallegos who also grew up in Magnolia Park. "Many of these neighborhoods are historic with people of color, unfortunately, they don’t have deed restrictions, and so therefore, they’re losing the character of their neighborhood."
In a 13-4 vote, Mayor Sylvester Turner, Council members Tarsha Jackson, Abbie Kamin, Dr. Carrolyn Evan-Shabazz, Tiffany D. Thomas, Carla Cisneros, Robert Gallegos, Edward Pollard, Martha Castex-Tatum, David Robinson, Michael Kubosh, Letitia Plummer, Sallie Alcorn supported the district. Council members Mike Knox, Mary Nan-Huffman, Amy Peck, and Dave Martin were the "no" votes.
Now, the Planning Department will start working with community members from those neighborhoods to discuss more about the conservation district, so the residents have a better understanding of their role during the process. Residents can choose between 19 items they want regulated that range from massing, minimum lot size, lot width, lot depth, front, side, and rear setbacks, building height, demolition of significant buildings, driveways, or architectural style.
A Conservation District would require 51% of support from all property owners in the area, which is lower than the 67% that's required for a historic designation. Approval from the Historic Commission and a 75% vote from city council is needed before a district is finalized.
During several public meetings, residents from those communities and some council members have spoken in support of the designation, but others have questioned what interference will Conservation Districts have on what's already in place like deed restrictions.
"This conservation district does not just apply to neighborhoods without deed restrictions that also will apply to neighborhoods with deed restrictions," said At-Large Council Member Mike Knox. He said he's concerned that Conservation Districts will be a way for neighborhoods with deed restrictions to change their requirements due to residents being able to regulate items under a Conservation District.
At-Large Council Member Michael Kubosh tried to change the amendment to include the option to allow property owners to opt out of a Conservation District, but in a 15-2 vote, it failed to pass.
"If this amendment is put on, it dilutes what we are trying to do," said Turner. "So for that reason, the administration cannot support the amendment."
Community members have said a Conservation District is the last option they have that could provide them with the much needed protection – especially for their neighborhoods that don't have deed restrictions. Some of the communities identified have federal protections, but it doesn't protect them against demolition at the local level.
During Tuesday's public session, some supporters from Freedmen's Town said the Conservation District could stop demolition in their neighborhood. Charonda Johnson is the Vice President of the Freedmen's Town Association. She said her community had over 500 contributing structures, but now that number has decreased to less than 50.
"What this conservation district will do is, it will give us local protection so we can save what is left." she said.
Gladys House -EL another resident of Freedmen's Town who helped get federal protections for her neighborhood suggested removing her community out of the ordinance. She said community members are unaware of what's going on and the city is not preserving her community. She said 11 structures have been torn down under Mayor Turner's administration.
Independence Heights is another community that has lost many contributing structures. Tanya Bubose is the Director of the Independence Heights Redevelopment Council. She said her community had over 1,300 structures and less than 100 exist now.
"I feel relieved that now communities actually have a tool that if they choose – they can use it to help protect their communities," she said.
The Conservation District ordinance only applies to the six communities identified and Mayor Turner said he doesn't plan on adding any more neighborhoods under his administration.