Weatherford Democrat

Big Story AM

August 26, 2011

Business owners speak out

Creation of involuntary historic overlay zones denied by P&Z

WEATHERFORD — Eight months of work by city staff and the historic preservation commission to allow for the creation of non-voluntary historic overlays was denied by the planning and zoning board this week.

A full room of residents attended a public hearing on an amendment to the city code for overlay and special districts, and when it came time to speak, it was clear they were against the proposed changes.

Members of the P&Z and historic preservation commission first met for a joint workshop in December to discuss creating a downtown overlay to preserve historical buildings. Waxahachie City Manager Paul Stevens spoke to the group about what his city did to revitalize their downtown area.

After that, the historic preservation commission set out to create an ordinance that would not only preserve downtown, but earn the city a certified local government status, a National Parks Service requirement  for numerous state and federal grants.

To be named a certified local government, a city must have an ordinance which allows for the creation of historic overlay districts on a non-voluntary basis.

It was the historic preservation commission’s intent once the overlay ordinance was passed, to create an historic overlay district for downtown. Property owners in the district would then have had to receive permission from the city before making changes to the outside facade of their building.

But an added level of red tape to make changes to their buildings did not sit well with downtown property owners or the planning and zoning.

During the public hearing, business owner Gary Jordan spoke out against adding more government into the lives of property owners.

Jordan bought property in the downtown area in the ’80s and remodeled it using money out of his own pocket. He said he avoided incentives and government money because of the delays it causes and the rules imposed.

“Government intentions, whether at the federal level, state level, city level or county level, may be good, but too many levels of bureaucracy and nonsense inhibits and prohibits the individual businessman to do what he needs with his property,” he said. “What we have here in this ordinance, this new downtown district, is going to hurt the downtown property owners.”

Churches near downtown would have also felt the effects of a non-voluntary overlay.

Lawrence Bierschenk, a member of Saint Stephen Catholic Church, said volunteers have worked to restore the 1902 church on South Main Street over the past two years. During that process, they tore down the old rectory that was determined to be unfit for use, and they have future plans to make the building handicap accessible.

“If this ordinance were in effect and we asked to tear down the residence (the older rectory), you would have said ‘No, it’s part of the historic structure,’” Bierschenk said. “And the rest of the property would not have been usable.

“You are stepping into territory I don’t think you have any business stepping into.”

Nearby, the congregation at Weatherford Presbyterian Church has been doing the same. Pastor Lou Tiscione said the ordinance would increase both the amount of time and money needed to restore the church constructed in 1896.

“It would be cumbersome and a financial hardship for our church,” he said.

The new ordinance would have allowed, with approval by the historic preservation commission, P&Z and city council, the creation of historic overlay zones without consent of the property owners. There was a section in the ordinance for property owners to come back and request to be removed, but they would have had to go through all three boards to do so.

Following the public hearing, members of the P&Z unanimously agreed they could not support an ordinance that would allow involuntary designation as an historic district.

“My underlying protest is with this, using Mr. Jordan as an example,” board chairman Darren Clark said. “Say he’s sitting on his couch watching the Cowboys one Sunday and someone says his land is not part of an historic overlay. Now he has to jump through hoops to have it undone ... If we are doing this just for certified local government funds, it’s not worth it to these people here.”

While the item to designate a downtown historic overlay district was subsequently removed from the agenda, two members of the historic preservation commission did address the P&Z about the item during its public hearing.

“I’ve spent more time on this square than anyone in this room,” Roberta Furman said. “The boarded up buildings make me sick. I joined the commission because I wanted to see something changed.”

She said she respected the decision that was made, but wants to see Weatherford retain its uniqueness.

Kathleen Wildwood shared the same feelings.

“Like Roberta, I would like to see us find some way we can keep the uniqueness of this community, so we can continue to draw people here who appreciate the uniqueness that we have,” Wildwood said. “We have not quite gotten to the place we need to be. We did spend many hours trying to bring something of worth that would be acceptable, and we will continue to do that.”

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