Proposed preservation rules could cover more properties

Proposed preservation rules could cover more properties

Michele Ellson

Preservationists are working on a potentially sweeping overhaul of the rules that guide preservation of Alameda’s historic homes and other historic resources that could subject alteration plans for nearly every structure in Alameda to additional review and impose costly fines on those who perform illegal work.

Also under consideration are changes that could clarify how much alteration to older homes and buildings is allowed and under what circumstances.

The Historical Advisory Board is updating the city’s 37-year-old Historic Preservation Ordinance, and city staffers anticipate a draft will be ready to circulate to other city boards and commissions in the next three to four months. The board and city staffers are reviewing the proposed changes bit by bit, with some early ordinance sections to be discussed at the board’s meeting tonight.

Major items under consideration include a provision that could make demolition or alteration projects on any structure that’s 50 years old or older subject to review by the Historical Advisory Board and another that could impose fines of up to $100,000 per violation for those who perform illegal work on an historic structure.

The list of proposed revisions also include rules that would limit the circumstances under which an historic structure could be demolished and others that would clarify how much of an historic structure could be demolished as part of a remodel effort.

Proponents of the changes, which have been in the works since 2005, said they’re long overdue and that they will streamline property owners’ efforts to make alterations. But some fear the changes will create a costly new layer of review.

“The idea of oversight is good,” Acting City Planner Andrew Thomas said. “But how do you do it in a way that doesn’t cost everybody more time and money?”

Alameda is one of the oldest communities in the state, and its grand Victorians, Craftsman bungalows and occasional mansion are a defining feature. “It’s an asset for Alameda, and people are attracted to it,” Dennis Owens, who chairs the city’s Historical Advisory Board, said of the Island’s architecture.

Alameda has three historic districts, 29 landmarks – a list that includes Franklin, Jackson and Washington parks, the trees along Central and Thompson avenues and nine signs – and a list of 4,000 structures that have been deemed worthy of being considered for preservation or landmark status. City leaders put a historic preservation ordinance in place in 1975 to protect that heritage, and a board to oversee the implementation of it.

A little over a quarter of California’s cities and counties have such ordinances in place; many have boards like Alameda’s, while others are overseen by local planning boards.

A review of a half dozen Bay Area preservation ordinances listed on the state office’s website showed that such boards perform a range of duties, from advising planning boards and city councils to conducting design review. Duties handled by Alameda’s board include design review of proposed changes or demolition of historic structures and hearing requests to remove protected trees.

In 2003 the city’s preservation ordinance was amended to require Historical Advisory Board review of plans to demolish structures built before 1942, or to make alterations equal to 30 percent or more of the structure’s value. But determining what constitutes 30 percent of a home’s value has been a challenge for city staffers and property owners, Owens and Thomas said.

“It created this new classification of buildings, a whole new process for it. It’s been problematic ever since,” Thomas said of the 2003 changes.

Owens said fresh changes being considered by the board – allowing a certain percentage of a home’s exterior to be demolished – will offer a level of certainty about what alterations can be made that doesn’t exist now. “The board’s going back and forth on what exactly that should be, but I think we’re close to consensus,” he said.

Another change being considered would have city staff handling routine tree removal requests, instead of the board.

More controversial are proposed changes that would make the demolition or alterations to buildings that are 50 years old or older subject to the board’s review, instead of those constructed prior to 1942. Owens said the 50-year standard is the Department of the Interior threshold for what may be considered historic and one that “a lot of cities” follow. Minutes from the December 2011 meeting where the proposal was discussed show two board members questioned the idea, saying it could deter homeowners from following the rules.

Thomas said he’s concerned the proposed changes could make it more difficult for the city to revitalize Alameda Point, which has a historic district that contains more than 90 buildings. Owens said that’s not the board’s intention and that members want to see the Point’s historic buildings in use.

Under the proposed rules, a demolition or relocation of an historic or older home or building would be permitted only if the structure has become a “detriment” or if the owner can prove that keeping it would pose an economic hardship.

Owens said the city has struggled to enforce the alteration and demolition rules, though he declined to cite specific projects.

“There have been projects that have come along and the work has not been in compliance. City staff doesn’t have much power to enforce them,” he said.

None of the six other cities whose ordinance The Alamedan reviewed appeared to levy such fines.

Other proposed changes include rules that would require owners of older homes and buildings to try to relocate them before tearing them down and that would allow the board to offer advice on landscaping, fencing, lighting and other potential changes to older and historic properties that don’t require formal review.

The board meets at 7 p.m. today at City Hall; an agenda and materials are available here.