As St. Petersburg City Council members recently debated the validity of the Driftwood local historic district application, I had visions of them holding up ballots to check for hanging chads. They were deciding whether to invalidate the vote because of how it was handled by city staff.
Just a week or so before, the council declined to declare the old Doc Webb house historic after a contentious fight between the home’s owners and a neighbor who had declared the house historic to prevent its demolition.
Four years after the last fight over the historic preservation ordinance, it’s clear that the city ordinance is unworkable and needs not just tweaks but major renovation, even innovation.
The council has asked to meet later this summer with the city’s Community Planning and Preservation Commission (CPPC) to consider removing “third party designations” that allow any city resident to declare historic a property they do not own. Such designations start the process, the first step of which is the application. If your neighbor can prove your house is historic and the CPPC and city council agree, you then you become subject to restrictions on renovating it. That’s what almost happened in the Doc Webb case.
But as the Driftwood case demonstrates, the process for declaring local historic districts (LHDs) also needs changing. In 2015 after a long, city-wide battle, the council revised the application process. Instead of two-thirds of the proposed district’s homeowners needing to vote for an application, now the threshold is only 50 percent. Hence, the Driftwood ballot battle, with some residents arguing that the city staff put its finger on the scale by calling residents after receiving ballots that had not indicated whether they were for or against the application. When contacted, those people were apparently allowed to alter their ballots to vote in favor of the Driftwood LHD designation.
Yet, if parcel owners who had voted yes but wanted to change their ballot – even before voting closed – they could not.
The council ultimately decided that the blank ballots could be changed, giving the application a majority approval. The council reaffirmed its vote making Driftwood an LHD.
But at what price? Clearly, the neighborhood is deeply divided on the issue; the votes to apply barely exceeded those who didn’t want to apply.
Meanwhile, a couple of years ago, many members of the Grand Terrace LHD wanted to rescind their designation but were told a mere majority vote to do so was insufficient. The majority had to prove the neighborhood was no longer historic. How do you do that? The residents decided it was a no-win situation and abandoned the effort.
All this begs for thinking outside the box: Why not abandon the concept of LHDs entirely? They are indeed a type of third-party designation, i.e., neighbors can, by vote, declare your house historic, whether you want it or not.
These districts are, for the most part, not really historic. Rather they are neighborhoods started a long time ago, but nothing really historic happened there. LHDs are simply a method for preserving the facades of the houses in a neighborhood. If the idea is to preserve the architecture, then allow individual homeowners to preserve their own home. Indeed you can, but it costs $200, whereas the fee to declare an LHD is $200, plus $10 per structure up to a maximum of $1,000. It’s cheaper for neighbors to band together and drag unwilling neighbors along with them.
What if the city lowered the cost for individual designation to $25 and streamlined the process? No vote would be required. And at that price, many preservationists could designate their home and encourage others to do the same, preserving the property rights of those not wanting the designation. In Driftwood, this process would have meant more than half the homes would be preserved.
The historic preservation system in St. Petersburg is broken. I respect those who wish to preserve their home exactly they way it was built, and I wish to preserve their right to do so. But tearing neighborhoods apart over an LHD designation has clearly reached the point where social cohesion should take precedence over architectural museums.
To each his own makes everyone a winner.