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Texas Bill Would Limit Cities’ Historic Preservation Powers

Austin, Texas (Photo by Stuart Seeger on Flickr)

A bill in the Texas legislature would make it much harder for cities to designate landmarks, and would make it easier to demolish historic buildings, the Houston Chronicle reports.

Currently, local governments largely get to decide how and under what criteria buildings and neighborhoods are preserved. House Bill 3418 would create statewide preservation standards and limit the availability of the “historically important and significant” protected status to the residences of historic figures and places where a “widely recognized” historic event occurred. The bill does not clarify what qualifies an event as “widely recognized.”

The bill, introduced Tuesday by Republican Rep. Gary Elkins, could threaten already protected buildings by giving authorities just 30 days to approve or deny property owners’ requests to demolish buildings. If no response is given during that time, the teardown request would be considered approved by default. The bill would also require city councils to approve any zoning changes to designate places as having historic, cultural or architectural importance with a three-fourths super-majority of all members.

Elkins says he does not outright oppose the designation of historical sites, but says historic designation status is misused to stymie developers and other private property owners.

“We’re not trying to remove the local historical factors in our cities,” Elkins said. “I know members are receiving emails opposing the bill, but I have heard from many individual citizens who are very much in support. They feel their city picks and chooses historical designations using very subjective standards.”

City and state preservation groups have spoken out against the bill, saying the statewide standard would likely exclude spaces that hold significance in some communities, especially when it comes to individuals and events from the past that are valued by minorities but not yet widely recognized.

“It takes away the ability of a local community to recognize and preserve what’s important to it,” Steve Sadowsky, historic preservation officer for the city of Austin, told the Chronicle. “Historic preservation is an educational tool. It’s not just to commemorate a person of importance. It can teach about architecture, community history, ethnic and racial history.”

A recent survey of 50 U.S. cities found that historic preservation is connected to increasing affordable housing, character and diverse neighborhoods.

The new legislation was inspired by a recent battle in Austin over a circa-1910 house that the owners wanted to demolish. The city’s Historic Landmark Commission said they planned to designate it a landmark, but when the owners withdrew their application the commission stopped pursuing landmark status.

This isn’t the first time Texas lawmakers have moved to take away power from cities. Just two months ago, lawmakers introduced a bill that would make it harder for Texas cities to preserve affordable housing.