Texas HB 3418 Threatens Dismantling of Much of Local Historic Preservation Process
Texas Construction News from Virtual Builders Exchange
The Savoy Building in San Antonio's historic downtown Houston Street district is an example of historically significant buildings that depend on a deliberative local review process to survive through thoughtful restoration and adaptive reuse.
by Adolfo Pesquera
Austin (Travis County) - A bill that would make it easier to demolish historic structures was introduced by Rep. Gary Elkins, R-Houston/District 135.
House Bill 3418 was referred to the Urban Affairs Committee on March 23. At present, it has no other sponser.
According to Preservation Texas, HB 3418 seeks to streamline the process for demolishing historic places by making it harder for local governments to designate historic landmarks, and making it easier for owners of previously designated landmarks to destroy them.
HB 3418 proposes that any new historic landmark designation based on "historical, cultural, or architectural importance" shall require the support of a supermajority (three-quarters) of the members of both the local planning or zoning board and the city council.
"This bill radically rejects the time-honored governing principle of local control by inventing new, state-imposed requirements that force local governments to include poorly-considered provisions in their freely adopted local zoning ordinances (and) creating unnecessary obstacles to the implementation of existing law," a Preservation Texas statement issued Tuesday said.
The bill limits the criteria for a historic designation to the following:
- The site must be the location of an event that is "widely recognized as a historic event," or
- The place where a historic figure lived.
Texas Local Government Code (Sec. 211.003(b)) empowers municipalities to regulate the construction, reconstruction, alteration and razing of buildings and other structures that have historic, cultural and architectural value as part of their general zoning powers, and to define those significant places in a way that is appropriate to their own local history.
For decades, Texas cities have relied on this zoning power to enact preservation zoning ordinances, conduct historic resource surveys, establish historic preservation tax incentives tied to this zoning, and otherwise making long-term planning decisions and investments tailored to the preservation of what each respective community deems a priority.
"The bill also clumsily attempts to impose a woefully old-fashioned 'George Washington slept here' standard of historical significance — prohibiting the landmarking of a historic place if the person associated with the building didn't live there or if the event associated with the site isn’t 'widely recognized,' Preservation Texas said.
"This vague and arbitrarily-imposed standard--“cultural” and “architectural” significance are left undefined--will have a chilling effect on local communities that seek to protect locally-significant historic places. They will fear that they could be sued for designating a site associated with an event not widely-known enough to satisfy the state legislature. And it will limit the landmarking of buildings associated with significant Texans to the houses they lived in - not the buildings where they worked, or wrote, or taught, or entertained, or created, or invented."
The bill also makes it easier to demolish historic places by dramatically increasing the power of unelected city officials to make zoning decisions. It vests a “municipal officer” with the sole authority to approve or deny requests to alter or destroy previously designated historic places — shutting out the public by shutting down local preservation commissions that have long been entrusted with the authority to conduct public hearings and make transparent recommendations with respect to the fate of their community’s historic places.
The demolition clock is accelerated by imposing a 30-day deadline for administrative approval of applications for alterations and demolitions.
The bill states, "If the municipal official fails to approve or deny the property owner's request within the period prescribed by this subsection, the request is considered approved."
Preservation Texas said, "This will only result in hasty, inefficient decision-making and unpredictable outcomes, handcuffing local officials who seek to undertake a thoughtful, deliberative review of applications. And it voids local ordinances that currently provide for deferrals of up to 180 days before handing over a death sentence to a historic building."
Eliminating the role of the public and the displacing historic preservation commissions will make it very difficult for cities to meet the standards of the National Historic Preservation Act to qualify as Certified Local Governments. Texans would essentially be excluded from participating in many valuable federal grant programs that support local preservation efforts.
HB 3418 has not yet been scheduled for a public hearing.
The following elected officials are members of the Urban Affairs Committee:
Rep. Carol Alvarado (Chair), District 145 (Houston)
Rep. Jeff Leach (Vice-Chair), District 67 (Plano)
Rep. Diego Bernal, District 123 (San Antonio)
Rep. Gary Elkins, District 135 (Houston)
Rep. Jason Isaac, District 45 (Dripping Springs)
Rep. Jarvis Johnson, District 139 (Houston)
Rep. Bill Zedler, District 96 (Arlington)
Adolfo Pesquera is a veteran news journalist. He has previously worked for Hearst Corp., American Lawyer Media, News Corp and Freedom Communications. His work has been published in newspapers and magazines throughout the United States. He is a communications graduate of the University of Texas-PanAmerican.
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