Is Louisville falling out of love with historic preservation? UPDATED [Opinion: The Arena]

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I (heart) historic preservation

A bi-partisan group of Metro councilmen has introduced some proposed changes to Louisville’s Landmarks Ordinance, and local preservationists have gotten their collective shorts in a knot.  In an editorial, the Courier-Journal characterizes this as a “War on Preservation:”

LouisvilleHisctoricPreservationAward400.jpg“For 40 years, preservation has been guided by trained professionals who understand why particular structures may be of historic value and why others may not be…   A swift, loud and effective defense of our existing historic preservation laws is vital. Opponents need to get organized and get to work to defeat this measure.”

The newspaper’s call to arms is directed against the sponsors of the proposed changes:  David Yates (D-25th District), Rick Blackwell (D-12th), Bob Henderson (D-14th), David James (D-6th), Vicki Welch (D-13th) and James Peden (R-23rd).  The editors seem to be outraged that the elected representatives of the people will be making the final decisions in landmark and preservation cases, instead of the “trained professionals.”

David Yates.jpgCouncilman David Yates, one of the amendment’s sponsors, describes the proposed changes as allowing for more neighborhood involvement when designating a structure as an historic landmark.  “We are in support of historic preservation but too often, residents in the area are not made aware of the effort to preserve a structure or building and what it may mean for the future of their neighborhood,” says Yates. “This amendment would insure there is input and support for such a designation by the people who live in the area.”

Marianne Zickuhr, executive director of Preservation Louisville, suggested to C-J reporter Dan Klepal that, “These changes will be extremely detrimental to this tool we have as a community… We have a Landmarks Commission for a reason.  It’s set up with experts.”

So, what’s the big deal?

gennyhouse.jpgThe proposed ordinance changes the way the Landmarks Commission designates an individual structure as a landmark.  Currently,  a property owner may request a landmark designation, or a petition requesting designation may be filed, if it contains  the verified signatures and addresses of no fewer than 200 residents of Louisville Metro.  The new wording would require that 101 of those signatures come from individuals who actually reside or own property within one mile of the proposed landmark, or signatures from at least 10% of the total such residents or property owners within the one mile radius, whichever signature threshold is lower.

The only other proposed change would provide that all landmark or preservation district designations from the appointed Landmarks Commission would automatically become law unless a majority of the elected representatives on the Metro Council voted their disapproval within 60 days of the Commission's designation.

“It is important that government be open and accountable. We respect the Landmarks Commission and the work they do and we will continue to work with them. However, final determination should be made in an open process by the group elected and held accountable by the people of Louisville and not an appointed body,” says Yates.

Yates is scheduled to appear before the Metro Council’s Planning and Zoning Committee on Tuesday afternoon, for a review of the proposed changes.

For a couple of generations, preservation decisions in our community have been made by “experts” and “trained professionals;” with little input from the citizens of Louisville or their elected representatives.

HarveySloane 5.jpgWhen Mayor Dr. Harvey I. Sloane and the old Board of Aldermen created Louisville’s Historic Landmarks Commission, 40 years ago, it was never their intention to create a law that would be used to deprive property owners of the use and value of their real estate.  Indeed, to do so would be a clear violation of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

The only intended purpose—for that matter, the only constitutionally permissible purpose—of the city’s landmarks law was to allow for a “cooling off period” after a request for a demolition or renovation permit for any historically valuable structure.  During the delay period, preservationists and city officials would have time to negotiate with property owners, and recommend external design improvements in keeping with the historical value of the structure. 

If a property owner, after the cooling off period, remained insistent on demolition, preservationists could pool their resources and attempt to buy the structure.  Failing that, the City could use its eminent domain powers to condemn the structure for a public purpose.  In either event, the property owner would recoup the fair market value of his investment.

The question presenting itself in this current brouhaha is whether preservationist “experts” should make the final determination on how a property owner may be allowed to use his property; or whether the elected representatives of the people should have a voice in the matter. 

UPDATE:  This article has been amended to reflect the most recent changes made to the draft proposal pending before the Metro Council.  The proposal was tabled in committee on 02/25/12, to allow time for two public hearings to be scheduled so that the Metro Council can receive additional community input.  Sources within the Council tell us that, at least so far, there is overwhelming support for the proposal among Council members.

WDRB’s Bennett Haeberle reports:

 

Frazier House.jpgFULL DISCLOSURE:  In the 1970s, Louisville Mayor Dr. Harvey I. Sloane shared the outrage of a number of citizens, when the Louisville Women’s Club wanted to demolish the Frazier House, a lovely Victorian home next to their headquarters on Fourth Street, for a parking lot.  He asked me to help save the building.  As Deputy Director of the city’s Department of Building and Housing Inspection, I refused to issue the Women’s Club a demolition permit, and in the ensuing litigation, we were able to reach a reasonable compromise which saved the Old Louisville landmark.

In an effort to give Louisville’s many landmarks a degree of protection, Mayor Sloane had me assist in drafting the city’s first Landmarks Ordinance.  The first Historic Landmarks Commission met in my office, and I assisted Mayor Sloane in selecting Ann Hassett to be the agency’s first Director.  My office provided all initial clerical support for the Commission, and I served as its first legal counsel.

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Louisville.com's The Arena section features opinions from active participants in the city's politics. Their viewpoints are not those of Louisville.com (a website is an inanimate object and, as such, has no opinions).  The Arena is read by more people in Louisville than in any other city in America.

 

About Thomas McAdam
At various times I have been a student, a soldier, a college Political Science teacher, a political campaign treasurer, and legal adviser to Louisville's Police Department and Board of Aldermen. I now practice law and share my political opinions with anyone who will listen.
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