Town hall addresses ‘trade-offs’ of historic district commission

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

By Samantha Jones

Citizens will vote in November to keep or abolish the Eureka Springs Historic District Commission, so the city brought in a preservation expert to address the purpose of the commission at a town hall on Sunday, Oct. 4.

Mayor Butch Berry kicked off the meeting, saying the town hall was meant to “inform citizens with the actual facts and not the rumors and innuendos and misinformation that’s been going on about the historic district.”

Catherine Barrier, the city’s certified local government coordinator for the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program, said it’s a “trade-off” to adopt a historic district commission.

“You give up a little bit of your freedom to do whatever you want so other things won’t happen,” Barrier said. “The benefit would be that your neighbor can’t tear down his historic cottage that’s right across from you that you like looking at and think is important, but you can’t tear down your historic building that you own … well, unless you have a really good reason that you’ve taken to the historic district commission.”

Barrier explained that the local historic district is created by an enabling state ordinance, which specifies that a city with a local historic district must have a historic district commission to review construction applications. The reason local historic districts exist, Barrier said, is because of “dramatic demolition situations.”

“Something very precious to people gets demolished and they decide that it’s better to restrict their own property rights than it is to let other things like this happen,” Barrier explained, showing a photo of Penn Station in New York.

Barrier said the original Penn Station was demolished in the 1960s and gave rise to the landmark preservation ordinance in New York, “which was one of the landmark preservation ordinances in the country.”

A major benefit of having a local historic district, Barrier said, is the access to state and federal grant funding. Additionally, Barrier said, tax credits are available to those who rehabilitate historic property.

“If you have a house that still has historic integrity, we have tax credits for 25 percent of qualifying rehabilitation work,” Barrier said. “You have to do $5,000 worth of work and you can get up to $20,000 in credit for the work you do, which is pretty good.”

Barrier said areas that have a local historic district have “considerably higher tourism receipts.”

“From my understanding … historic districts preserve or increase property values across the country, and they’re more steady in downturns and keeping historic buildings is more environmentally responsible,” Barrier said.

Barrier said most commissions in Arkansas approve more than 95 percent of applications they receive.

“If the applicant wishes to appeal the decisions, they can file an appeal with the circuit court,” Barrier said. “This is not the same as it is in most states. In most states, that appeal would go to the planning commission, but this is dictated by the state historic districts act.”

City preservation officer Glenna Booth said she reviewed the last three and a half years of applications, saying the commission received 855 applications and denied six.

“The commission does try to work with any applicant whose application does not meet guidelines and suggest modifications and try to work it out,” Booth said.

A citizen asked “what safeguards would be in place” to preserve historic buildings if the historic district commission is abolished and Barrier said those protections are outlined in the enabling ordinance to create a local historic district.

“I don’t know of any way to have the historic district ordinance without the historic district act,” Barrier said. “It may be possible to pass separate legislation under the zoning code, but it would not include any protections on demolitions and it would require another design review commission.”

Barrier suggested for the commission to offer public meetings where guidelines would be reviewed, saying guidelines should be reviewed and amended by the commission on a regular cycle “every year, two years or three years.”

“I say that not necessarily because I think the guidelines, the basic guidelines, need to be changed … but because it’s always a good idea to update them, and it’s always a good idea to do it in a way that the public becomes more familiar with the guidelines,” Barrier said.

Arkansas’ local historic districts differ from those of other states, Barrier said, so it’s especially important for new citizens of the state to be informed. Two citizens said they recently moved to Eureka Springs and didn’t receive any information on the historic district, while one citizen said she has purchased two homes in the area and received information on the historic district both times. Historic district commissioner Dee Bright said it’s important to the commission to get that information to local realtors.

“In the last three years, Glenna Booth and two or three commissioners have met with the realtor board and given them pamphlets,” Bright said.

“It’s frustrating not to be able to have the entire city and the real estate agents who sell homes tell people we’re in a historic district,” Berry said. “To us who live here, it seems rather obvious but I realize people moving here sometimes don’t realize it. Realtors are required to inform you, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to.”

Berry thanked everyone for coming to the town hall and asking questions.

“If we don’t ask the questions, we don’t know,” Berry said. “This is an important issue coming up. I appreciate everybody being here and being voters, and be sure to go out and vote.”

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