Sunday, September 2, 2007
The Steamboat Springs City Council has a legitimate concern about historic preservation in Old Town. But passing a revamped preservation ordinance without significant involvement from downtown property owners would be a step in the wrong direction.
The issue of preservation has become one of particular importance this year, largely the result of an increasing number of demolition permits being sought for Old Town residences. With finite building lots in Steamboat proper, and land values now often exceeding the value of the actual structures, we're seeing more and more property owners purchasing homes simply to raze them and start fresh. Others simply want to update or renovate their old homes to modern standards.
Confusing the issue is the city's existing historic preservation ordinance, which states that the Historic Preservation Advisory Commission must review any project that could alter the historic character of any historic structure, defined as a building more than 50 years old. But while the review is mandatory, compliance with HPAC recommendations is not. After a maximum 90-day waiting period on such projects, the property owner is free to proceed as he or she likes.
We agree with the council that the ordinance's definition of a historic structure is inadequate, but we're not ready to endorse a revised ordinance that would make compliance with HPAC recommendations mandatory. We feel the same way about an ordinance that would prohibit all significant renovations or demolitions of structures deemed historic by HPAC or any other group. But that's a step some council members appear ready to take.
The council passed an emergency moratorium Aug. 21 that stopped the issuance of any building permit that could result in the alteration or demolition of a historic structure. The moratorium was revised - correctly so - last week to allow renovation projects that "will not significantly alter the historic character of any historic structure." The moratorium is effective for 90 days, and the council plans to review a second moratorium at its meeting Tuesday.
In a letter to the editor published in this edition of the Pilot & Today, Councilman Towny Anderson says the second moratorium will call for the formation of a committee to facilitate a community discussion about the value Steamboat places on protecting historic buildings and how best to preserve them. The moratorium on demolition permits and other significant renovations to historic structures could last into the spring.
We agree that the council must take this opportunity to engage the community in the preservation discussion. Based on initial reaction to the emergency moratorium, we expect that discussion to be lively and representative.
But above all, we expect existing Old Town property owners to play a significant role in the debate. Many of those property owners have built significant equity in their homes, and it would be unfair to punish them based on the vote of a seven-member City Council.
The city should explore a variety of options other than a council-driven ordinance that would prohibit a homeowner's right to alter or demolish his or her home. Some possible alternatives: Consider forming a special district to allow Old Town property owners to decide the fate of their homes and commercial buildings. Control the redevelopment of Old Town through the planning process - identify the characteristics that make Old Town unique and require new construction to conform to certain size and design limitations. We're confident other options will emerge as the discussion progresses.
Steamboat is at an important crossroads in its history, and this is the right time for the historic preservation debate. But individual property rights and the will of the community should not be circumvented in the process.