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H-Zoning Gets ZAPped Again

By Mike Clark-Madison, Fri., Nov. 28, 2003

Yet more controversy and complaint on the city historic zoning front: After postponing a number of H-zoning cases in September, pending the creation of a City Council-appointed task force, the Zoning and Platting Commission -- four of whose members now sit on that task force -- voted last week to postpone five cases again, likely until January, thus killing the property owners' chances of getting a historic-zoning tax abatement for 2004. (Historic zoning must be in place before Dec. 31 to qualify for next year's tax abatement; the five properties in question are looking at tax-bill savings of more than $10,000 each.)

All five cases had been OK'd by both the Historic Landmark Commission and city historic preservation officer Steve Sadowsky -- who tried to object to the ZAP decision but reportedly didn't make it to the microphone in time. The ZAP -- whose Chair Betty Baker has done much to spawn the present controversy over historic zoning -- felt it best to wait until after the task force makes its proposals to the City Council for reworking the system.

However, the Planning Commission, which hears H-zoning cases in adopted neighborhood plan areas and which has also contributed members to the task force, has instituted no such de facto moratorium. Indeed, the City Council itself continues to grant historic zoning, and tax abatements, while the task force continues its work. But the tax abatement itself -- 100% on the structure, 50% on the land -- may itself be endangered; it's widely understood that both Baker and Council Member Betty Dunkerley, with the assent of their colleagues, would like to see the city's current generous tax treatment of historic properties drastically reduced or even abolished. Such a move is likely to spawn a rash of cases filed by property owners to rescind their current H-zoning -- and instead point the city toward local historic districts (without tax abatements, and likely without any funds to help low-income neighborhoods with rehabilitation of historic homes) as a preservation tool.

Baker has already made her position clear in prior ZAP meetings, feeling no compunction about second-guessing the HLC or deciding, using her own standards, what constitutes a "historic" property, and objecting strongly (as has the City Council) to recent attempts by central-city neighborhood leaders to use H-zoning as a de facto neighborhood planning tool. Many observers (both preservationists and neighborhood leaders) have been nonplussed that the task force has so far not had any real advocate for H-zoning to balance the views of the current system's foes. Last week, the City Council agreed to allow an actual member of the HLC to sit in on the task force -- but only in a nonvoting role.

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