HB 3418 Threatens Historic Districts

April 7, 2017

Update:  A public hearing on HB 3418 will be held by the Urban Affairs Committee on Tuesday, April 11th at the Capitol in Austin.  Details here.

 

March 28, 2017

Your local historic preservation zoning ordinance is at serious risk.

A bill filed by Rep. Gary Elkins in the Texas House of Representatives, HB 3418, seeks to streamline the process for demolishing historic places in Texas by making it more difficult for local governments to designate historic landmarks and making it easier for the owners of previously designated landmarks to destroy them.  It is a bill that serves only those who seek to destroy historic places and who fear public input in the zoning process.

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 creating unnecessary obstacles to the implementation of existing law.

That’s because the 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.

Relying on this zoning power for decades, Texas cities have been enacting preservation zoning ordinances, conducting historic resource surveys, establishing historic preservation tax incentives tied to this zoning, and otherwise making long-term planning decisions and investments tailored to the preservation of what’s important to them.

HB 3418 makes it more difficult to enact preservation zoning ordinances by mandating that any new historic landmark designation requires the support of a supermajority of 3/4 of the members of both the local planning or zoning board and the city council.

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”.  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 reasonable and rational authority to conduct public hearings and make transparent recommendations with respect to the fate of their community’s historic places.

HB 3418 speeds up the demolition clock, imposing an artificial thirty-day deadline for the bureaucratic approval of applications for alterations and demolitions of historic buildings.  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.

And by eliminating the role of the public in the historic preservation zoning process and displacing historic preservation commissions, Texas cities will find it very difficult to meet the standards of the National Historic Preservation Act to qualify as Certified Local Governments, excluding Texans from participating in valuable federal grant programs that support local preservation efforts.

HB 3418 undermines the foundation of local preservation practice.  It would enable an unelected city-appointed official to approve an application for the demolition of a landmarked building without any public input — and require them to do so within thirty days, or else the demolition would be approved by default.

Preservation planning and zoning works best when local communities can chart their own course without the state legislature running interference and putting obstacles in the path of preserving our state’s most important historic places.

Let the members of the Urban Affairs Committee know how you feel about HB 3418 and how it will impact your community, share this e-mail with friends and colleagues, and SUPPORT PRESERVATION TEXAS!

Read a recent news article about this bill here.

The following elected officials are members of the Urban Affairs Committee:

 

Rep. Carol Alvarado (Chair), District 145 (Houston)

    512-463-0732

    carol.alvarado@house.texas.gov

 

Rep. Jeff Leach (Vice-Chair), District 67 (Plano)

    512-463-0544    

    jeff.leach@house.texas.gov

 

Rep. Diego Bernal, District 123 (San Antonio)

    512-463-0532

    diego.bernal@house.texas.gov

 

Rep. Gary Elkins, District 135 (Houston)

    512-463-0722

    gary.elkins@house.texas.gov

 

Rep. Jason Isaac, District 45 (Dripping Springs)

    512-463-0647

    jason.isaac@house.texas.gov

 

Rep. Jarvis Johnson, District 139 (Houston)

    512-463-0554

    jarvis.johnson@house.texas.gov

 

Rep. Bill Zedler, District 96 (Arlington)

    512-463-0374

    bill.zedler@house.texas.gov