Preserving the Classic City

By Audrey Milam

Sean Hogan of Hogan Builders ruffled some feathers at the March meeting of the Historic Preservation Commission when, in his construction application for 380 Boulevard, he requested some alternatives to the pre-approved siding and windows. Jim and Sheila Payne, the owners of 380, requested an efficient “one over one” style window and a more prominent siding material on the rear extension to their home.

The Commission approved the siding but favored a traditional “six over six, divided light window” in keeping with the rest of the house and suggested entirely relocating the window.

Hogan’s conflict with the Commission is an example of historic preservation at its smallest scale. Most people know about big projects like saving the fire hall within the Classic Center, but few know about the Jim Paynes and their back windows, yet the vast majority of cases are on the scale of a single alteration to a private home.

The Historic Preservation Commission, a board of seven mayor-appointed citizens, handles the minute details, the nuts and bolts, literally, of preservation enforcement.

On the grander side of the spectrum, the Athens-Clarke Heritage Foundation works to preserve entire properties and neighborhoods.

The Heritage Foundation is responsible for registering twelve Athens neighborhoods as local historic districts. The Boulevard neighborhood, home to Payne and Hogan, is one of the city’s most prominent historic neighborhoods.

Cobbham is one of twelve local historic districts in Athens.

Cobbham is one of twelve local historic districts in Athens.

Historic designation means strict rules for neighborhood consistency and period-appropriate exterior repairs.

Because the upkeep can be burdensome, the Heritage Foundation’s “Hands on Athens” program has provided “free maintenance, repairs and landscaping improvements,” according to their website, for more than 100 homeowners since 1999. Most projects helped elderly and low-income homeowners in Newtown, Hancock, and East Athens neighborhoods.

Sometimes these rules can be difficult to follow and, according to Heritage Foundation Executive Director Amy Kissane, Commission approval can be hard to anticipate.

Kissane recommended in the Heritage Foundation’s Fall 2012 newsletter that city government provide architectural and legal training to the Historic Preservation Commissioners to turn out more consistent decisions.

She still hopes a regular training routine will be implemented.

“I can understand where the commissioners are coming from,” she said, referring to the difficulty of balancing neighborhood wishes with owner requests and preservation ordinances.

However, Kissane said, ultimately the Commission’s decisions must be “legally defensible”.

Drew Dekle, vice-chair of the Historic Preservation Commission, expressed similar concern after the March 12 meeting, saying that Hogan’s request to alter the submitted design was ultimately appropriate, but could have been controversial.

If there were a major change, more than a siding or window change, Dekle said, “Would there be a vote taken to see if what’s presented at the podium is acceptable?”

“Clarification is always the key,” said Planning Department staff. “You can’t change the substance of the application on the fly.”

Whether a modification changes the substance would still be up to the Commission to decide, meaning the application may still vary from the notice given to the public before each meeting.

“I know it’s not really your job to be concerned about citizens,” said Amy Gellins, of the Athens Clarke County Attorney’s Office, “but we all are concerned about citizens, so you’re always looking for a balance in carrying out your responsibilities.”

Gellins answers questions of procedure for the Commission but does not make recommendations.

The Historic Preservation Commission is fulfilling its duty, whether the Commissioners are comfortable with their roles or not.

Ultimately, Jim Payne said, the experience was painless and the back window will have six over six panes.

The Historic Preservation Commission approved a renovation to 380 Boulevard with a number of caveats.

The Historic Preservation Commission approved a renovation to 380 Boulevard with a number of caveats.

“It would definitely look better with that window there [in the new location].”

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Easements preserve natural and community resource

If you blink, you’ll miss 230 Boulevard. You’ll miss the bags of soil and the saplings waiting in blue recycling bins. The mayor and commission approved plans in February to turn the tiny lot into Boulevard Woods, a community park.

Land is very expensive in the historic neighborhood, but owner Gary Bayard chose not to clear it and sell to a developer; instead he placed it in a conservation easement, a privately owned property that can’t be mined, timber farmed, or developed, per the owner’s request.

Boulevard is only one lot out of more than 800 acres in Athens-Clarke County designated as conservation easements.

Landowners can receive federal income tax deductions and state tax credits for registering land with an approved conservation organization like Athens Land Trust or Georgia Conservancy.

But to the average Athens-Clarke County resident, what difference does a conservation area make? Most of the county’s 120,000 residents rent, not own, property.

The answer: land conservation protects biodiversity and ecosystem services such as clean air and water. Athens area conservation protects the water supply in particular.

Many easements border the middle Oconee River or its tributaries. Athens Land Trust protects more than 600 acres along the Oconee in multiple counties.

People care about water, said Dr. Liz Kramer of the Natural Resources Spatial Analysis Lab. “When we start seeing a stress on a resource, it’s going to impact us.”

Georgia’s land and water are stressed more than ever, Kramer said. “Georgia changes a lot because we have a lot of development,” she said.

Permanent easements insure some of Georgia’s resources are maintained.

Because more than 95-percent of Georgia land is privately owned, these easements are the most effective tool for conservation, according Clint McNeal, Georgia Land Conservancy conservation specialist. Landowners retain the rights to sell and bequeath the land, local governments receive property taxes, and registered conservation trusts care for the land and its resources in perpetuity.

The State Assembly introduced the tax incentive program in 1993 to encourage more land owners to protect forests, wetlands, and greenspaces from destruction.

The state offers transferable tax credits for 25-percent of the land’s resale value minus the development or timber value prohibited by the easement, up to $250,000.

The credit especially helps “land-rich, cash-poor” individuals who can sell the credit for about 80 cents on the dollar, said McNeal, although as few as eight easements in the state qualified for credits last year.

Limited liability corporations also contributed to the increase in number of easements in the last two to three years, said Athens Land Trust Conservation Director Kyle Williams.

Although people tend to think of conservation areas as large tracks of land like Bear Creek Reservoir, the average size of an easement in Athens-Clarke County is 67 acres, that’s about two city blocks.

In the Boulevard neighborhood, less than half an acre makes a difference. Boulevard Woods will provide a greenspace in Athens’ urban center, a unique role in the growing city.

Boulevard is an affluent pocket in a mixed student, townie, and low-income area. Williams says the conservation easement is a really a community easement.

“Recognizing a tree is valuable, or a flower, gives them a greater sense of stewardship of resources.”