Historic overlay in spotlight at OWN town hall Jan. 26

       The fate of the long-discussed overlay for historic Westside homes may be decided by the homeowners themselves.
       City staff and the Organization of Westside Neighbors (OWN) have somewhat different ideas on how it should work, and attendees at the OWN “town hall” meeting Thursday, Jan. 26 will get a chance to hear both and to offer ideas.
       “My goal is to say, 'OK, citizens, here are the pros and cons, what way do you want the neighborhood organization to go?'” said OWN President Welling Clark in a recent interview.
       The meeting, beginning at 7 p.m. at the Westside Community Center, 1628 W. Bijou St., is also scheduled to include a presentation by District 3 City Councilmember Lisa Czelatdko and elections for three three-year seats on the OWN board.
       Anybody can vote or run for the board, as long as they're at least 18 and live or own property in the OWN Neighborhood Strategy Area (NSA). The board has nine directors in all.
       On the overlay, both OWN and the city envision it as voluntary, giving willing homeowners the chance to earn 20 percent tax credits (on projects exceeding $5,000) for remodels in keeping with formal historic construction criteria. Both entities also agree that whatever form an overlay takes, it should not cause excessive work for city staff.
       The main differences between OWN and the city, which came out at an OWN board meeting Jan. 12 attended by Erin McCauley of City Land Use Review, involve how an overlay should look and operate. OWN would like a zone covering the entire NSA, while the current city position is that such would raise false expectations. The preference is a “scattered sites” approach that would start by focusing only on those (nearly 2,000 in all) that were marked as historically “contributing” in a prior OWN-city study.
       The OWN proposal uses a “carrot” approach, as Clark put it, by giving NSA owners the option of applying for historic approval if they feel like it. “We want to slap an overlay down and say, 'You're eligible to apply,'” he said.
       The city position is to have a stick as well as a carrot, in that once a property has been zoned historic, no building permit could be approved for it without design review by the city Historic Preservation Board. But there would be an escape clause: If the zoned property owner spurns the board review (as long as the property isn't also on the National Historic Registry), a 90-day period would ensue, after which the owner could apply for a building permit without the board's review, McCauley explained.
       In the recent OWN quarterly newsletter, the Westside Story, OWN decries the city position as a “significant change from what city staff had been telling the neighborhood for the last eight years” - which was basically that the Westside could set up an overlay zone to suit its needs - and deems the effort “threatened” as a result.
       But the city message previously given to OWN had come from a staffer no longer with the city (a person assigned to historic preservation who was laid off at the end of 2009 as part of city budget-balancing). No city staffer has been given that job since, although McCauley has become a point of contact on such matters.
       At least part of the city's plan of action is in keeping with the position of the previous preservation staffer, which was to find out at some point how much actual support exists on the Westside for a historic overlay of any kind. To carry out this goal, the city expects to be scheduling public meetings and contacting the “contributing” owners, McCauley said.
       Asked after the Jan. 12 OWN meeting what the tipping point might be, in terms of owner interest, she responded, “I don't think we've quantified the interest into a specific number of properties. I think we'll determine if we have enough interest to move forward after the first informational public meeting.”
       She also noted a potentially favorable offshoot if there's a strong Westside interest in the city's individual-rezone concept - a temporary, deep reduction in the cost of rezoning their properties. The cost is about $1,400 now, but to help consolidate the Westside effort “we could come up with a fee of maybe $50 a property for a couple of years,” McCauley said.
       One point that both Clark and McCauley agreed on Jan. 12 was that because a few years have passed since the OWN-city study, there is no certainty about the current condition even of “contributing” properties, and so historic projects proposed for any properties would have to be considered on a case-by-case basis.
       In either plan, homeowners doing historic remodels would need to apply to the city's volunteer Historic Preservation Board. If the board terms the project worthy, the OWN overlay version shows its members and those on the board helping each applicant finalize a proposal to the state.
       The city's “scattered sites” approach would take in only the study area. That area was originally decided on by OWN several years ago and is specified in the “Design Guidelines” document that OWN helped publish two years ago. The area leaves out Westside NSA parcels west of 31st Street, north of Uintah Street and in the Midland neighborhood (south of Highway 24).
       The city would not oppose rezoning requests from property owners outside the study area. However, McCauley said, because the “Guidelines” - which contains design details for specific types of historic homes - only focuses on buildings within that area, an owner outside it “will need to do more research.”
       OWN has been pushing for a historic overlay zone, as a way of preserving classic older homes and at the same time the Westside's neighborhood character, for about eight years.

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