Historic preservation issue breeds confusion, angst

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Anita Hawkins, left, and her husband, Rob, shown here in front of their home on James Street in Steamboat Springs on Wednesday afternoon, are concerned about the City Council's possible steps to revise the historic preservation ordinance.

— Rob and Anita Hawkins live in a log cabin on James Street that was built in 1896 in Hahn's Peak. The cabin was moved to Steamboat Springs during the Great Depression to help provide affordable housing.

Two doors down, at the corner of James and Short streets, sits an ultramodern home that couldn't differ more from the historic cabin. The eclectic contrast of the neighborhood is something the Hawkinses like.

"We love the funk of downtown," Rob Hawkins said.

The Hawkinses believe it is the residents, not the regulations, that have given Old Town its flair, and they are among a growing group of citizens concerned by steps the Steamboat Springs City Council has taken toward revising its historic preservation ordinance.

Last week, City Council voted 4-2 to impose an emergency moratorium that prevents the acceptance of applications "for building permits that could result in the alteration of an exterior aspect of, or demolition permits for, any historic structure." Historic structures are defined by the ordinance as any building more than 50 years old.

Confusion and concern arose immediately, with even minor projects such as roof repairs and permits for buildings not historic themselves, but in historic neighborhoods, grinding to a halt.

There was some clarification of the moratorium's intent this week, with a process put in place that will allow projects "that will not significantly alter the historic character of any historic structure" to proceed. While that clarification cleared up many immediate concerns, there still is anxiety about the future. And major projects may be caught in limbo until spring.

"It is probably going to be an inconvenience for some people for some time," Planning Director Tom Leeson said.

Moratoriums

The intent of council's emergency moratorium was to halt demolitions and projects that would have a significant exterior affect on historic structures. To be legally defensible, however, the wording of the moratorium had to mirror that of the historic preservation ordinance and thus seemingly prohibited any application concerning historic structures, or structures neighboring historic ones. Leeson said such an interpretation wouldn't allow any permits at all in Old Town.

At Tuesday's City Council meeting, Leeson circulated a memorandum clarifying the moratorium's intent and outlining a process that would allow permit applications to at least proceed to the first step in the process, which authorizes Historic Preservation Specialist Laureen Schaffer to make a predetermination as to whether a proposed project will "significantly alter the historic character of any historic structure." If it is deemed the project will not, it may proceed.

Leeson said this clarification has allowed projects such as the repair of a leaky roof on Oak Street to proceed.

"It is no more onerous than what people were going through before the emergency moratorium," Councilman Towny Anderson said.

A more specific moratorium, which will go through the "regular" ordinance process, is being drafted and will likely replace the emergency moratorium. The first reading of that ordinance will take place at council's Sept. 4 meeting. It probably will be in place for several months while an advisory committee addresses permanent changes to the historic preservation ordinance.

"The important thing here is that the language says what it intends," Anderson said. "And what we intend is to prohibit the demolition of historic buildings for a period of time."

City Attorney Tony Lettunich described the city's historic preservation ordinance as one of mandatory review, but voluntary compliance. While the city's Historic Preservation Advisory Commission must review any project that could alter the historic character of any historic structure, the most the city can do is make recommendations and impose up to a 90-day waiting period on such projects.

The debate during the next few months will be whether to make compliance mandatory. There also likely will be a revision to the ordinance's definition of a historic structure; with most people seeming to agree that age alone is an inadequate assessment.

"I'd like to see protection of our historic resources," Anderson said. "I also realize our definition of historic resources or historic structures is too broad."

Anderson hopes the definition will be changed from a structure older than 50 years, to a structure that would qualify for inclusion in an accepted historic register, such as the National Register of Historic Places.

The future

The Hawkinses were among a group of citizens who attended Tuesday's City Council meeting to express concerns both with the emergency moratorium and possible revisions to the historic preservation ordinance. Rob Hawkins, an architect, said many of his clients' projects, including interior remodeling and replacing windows in nonhistoric homes, had been halted by the emergency moratorium.

"Nobody had an issue with the demolition of a historic structure," he said. "We went because town shut down, basically."

While those concerns were mostly addressed by Leeson's memo, Rob Hawkins said he worries about the future. He is troubled by what he calls Schaffer's broad power to decide what projects may proceed, without oversight or review.

"It's her way or the highway," he said.

Rob Hawkins believes mandatory compliance is a mistake.

"It should be incentive-based," Hawkins said. "We just don't see why it has to be forced on us."

Anita Hawkins, an appraiser, said revising the ordinance could unfairly hurt people's property values because buyers would be less willing to purchase a house if they feared they might not be able to improve it to modern standards. The Hawkinses put an addition on the back of their cabin and hope to remodel their front porch in the future. They feel it would be unfair to disallow them such freedoms simply because they live in an older home.

"Are we supposed to keep this like a museum for other people to walk through?" she asked.

While the majority of City Council is in favor of revisiting the historic preservation ordinance, Councilman Steve Ivancie said the current ordinance works just fine. He said he wouldn't be opposed to improving the definition of a historic structure.

"We didn't think it through," Ivancie said. "It's ill-conceived. We don't need to add teeth to an ordinance that's working just fine. My opinion, when it comes to private property, is that the owner's consent is paramount."

Comments

id04sp 7 years ago

Wait until some of the ski corp and base area buildings are 50 years old and they want to tear them down.

Federal law gives tax breaks for improvements which result in energy savings. Federal law also prohibits homeowner's associations from restricting digital satellite dish installations (this is from last November) or from prohibiting display of the Flag. So, I say, get the biggest flag you can afford and put up 3 or 4 digital satellite dishes (less than 1 meter in diameter) and stick them all over your historic dwelling until you get permission to bring it up to modern electrical, plumbing and building code standards. In other words, make your so place so non-historic looking that they'll beg you to fix it up.

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twostroketerror 7 years ago

Why not paint the front of your house into an american flag? Fashionable and stylish, sure to tickle the fancy of your neighbors and rattle the corn cobs of many a council member. I think paints' still legal....

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gravity 7 years ago

I am stronglly with the Hawkins, giving power to one or a few individuals to decide what is or isn't historical could lead wasting lots of our tax money on trvial matters. If you really want to save the historic flavor of downtown figure out how to reroute hwy 40 so it doesn't have to become a traffic jam every day.

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stayinbalance 7 years ago

A couple of comments: Thank-you Rob and Anita for taking a stand against this moratorium! I completely agree with you. If the historical society and its supporters think all of Old Town is historical, then they should hold a fundraiser and buy all of our properties and turn Old Town into a museum. Leeson and Towny: Did you take any economics classes? How can you say it is no more onerous when all permits for Old Town are affected?? This is costing millions of dollars to owners who projects were halted, not to mention the hundreds of people who were put out of work. You are certainly aware of how hard it is to find good employees and when a contractor has a good set of people, they want to keep them working. Leeson, this is much more than an "inconvenience". Is the city going to help pay for this mess? No one should have this type of authority, i.e., Laureen Schaffer or any city staff member. This issue is huge, not insignificant as you would like it to appear. It makes a person seriously wonder if this isn't a conspiracy to benefit a select few. I also believe it is a serious infringement of our rights as property owners. I sure hope this is thrown out. I can't imagine the wording of the ordinance would ever approach reasonable when there are so many unreasonable people behind it.

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Scott Wedel 7 years ago

Showing the flag is protected because that falls under political speech which is protected.

This ordinance is admittedly poorly thought out which happens all the time for SB City Council. Not only was it overly broad and affecting far more than intended, it will have unintended consequences. Most obvious of which is for someone with with small simple house on a larger lot approaching 50 years old has to strongly consider demolishing it to preserve their lot value (that something nicer could be built on it)

The far more sensible approach would be to identify what is downtown character and require that be kept in all remodels and new construction. Such as requiring special permission for to make or expand any house larger than 2,500 sq ft. The essential nature of old town is not so much the age of the buildings, but that most are of modest size.

And this is not something the City Council should be imposing upon Old Town, but should be a special district voted on by the residents of Old Town. People in the rest of SB with their McMansions shouldn't be telling property owners in Old Town to keep their cute little old houses just as they are.

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elphaba 7 years ago

Dear City Council: Did you remember that the Harbor Hotel was over 50 years old? Did you remember that the Nite's Rest was over 50 years old? The trailer park was probably over 50 years old. Did you remember that the gas station at the corner of 10th & Lincoln was over 50 years old? Where did this new found love of history come from????

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another_local 7 years ago

Nice list of 50 year old places. I am glad they are gone.

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