On Tuesday, March 5th, the Athens-Clarke County commission board voted to designate the Buena Vista neighborhood as an historic district. Fourteen days later, Mayor Nancy Densen allowed it to pass into law without signing it, officially sealing the area’s fate as a protected neighborhood.
This decision marks the end of an almost two-year controversy between local home owners and perhaps one of the more divisive issues for Athens in recent years. Though the decision is now final, home owners and developers on both sides of the issue remain unhappy with the outcome.
“It leaves something that everyone can say they dislike,” said one official.
The issue was first raised in May of 2011, when the Athens Banner-Herald reported that the residents of the neighborhood were considering applying to be a designated historic district. While the neighborhood itself does contain many historically significant homes, it also contains various contemporary homes and rental properties. With the advent of the University of Georgia’s new medical campus, residents in the area decided to pursue this designation in order to protect the area from development geared toward student housing. Other home owners in Buena Vista opposed the decision, fearing that it would take away some of their rights as property owners.
In October of 2012, the designation proposal finally went before the Mayor and county commission, where it was tabled until February due to the amount of dissention between residents.
“I’m glad that there was no final vote back in October,” said district nine Commissioner Kelly Girtz. “That window allowed us to track up a lot of important things.” Girtz, along with commissioners Kathy Hoard and George Maxwell, took that opportunity to take another look at the proposed district in order to reach a compromise. He also explained that preserving the city’s character and history was part of his reason for redrawing the district map, but that he also wanted to make sure that many of the non-contributing properties and the home owners who opposed the designation would remain out of the area.
The purpose of historic designation is to preserve the look and feel of a community as well as protect property values and promote the refurbishment of historic buildings. In an historic district, any new development or external change to existing buildings must first be approved by the preservation commission. In this manner, the preservation commission is able to manage development and preserve the character of historically significant areas.
The new district is roughly bounded by Prince Ave. on the South, Pound St. and Park Ave. on both sides and Nantahala Extension on the Northern side. With just 62 properties, the approved district is significantly smaller than the Historic Preservation Commission’s original 100-property plan that was recommended last fall. Proposing a plan that included fewer properties, the commissioners sought to protect the historic homes and cut out the properties that were described as not contributing to the historic significance of the area.
But few advocates or opponents of the historic designation are content with the resulting compromise.
“This is not a compromise, but a sellout,” asserted Melissa Link, a community activist and resident of the neighboring Boulevard district at a commission meeting in February. Standing her ground, she maintained that the smaller district would only allow the area to be taken over by developers capitalizing on the growing neighborhood. She also argued that Buena Vista should have been included in the Boulevard historic district when it was designated 25 years ago.
Jared York, Vice President of the Athens Area Home Builders Association, owns properties in Buena Vista and was opposed to the designation of this district. He argued that this decision would complicate many things in regard to renovation for home owners in the area.
“The biggest thing for property owners is that is creates uncertainty,” said York. “You don’t know if the commission is going to approve what you are asking for, so you are less likely to ask for it.”
York described the process of having to go through the preservation commission to make exterior changes to buildings as discouraging for property owners. He explained that the fees and permits involved in renovation of these properties could potentially add two or even three months to certain building projects, even if these changes were approved by the commission.
George Maxwell, who represents district 3 which includes the Buena Vista neighborhood, voted against the new plan. Though he had previously supported the redrawing of the district, he voiced reservations on the idea of a smaller district. He ultimately decided that he would support the original plan or none at all.
“That compromise is not serving the district as I feel it should be served,” he explained to the commission when he decided to vote against the measure.
Buena Vista resident Kristin Morales however, is relieved by the recent vote, telling OnlineAthens that she would rather see some of the district protected than none of it.
“It’s certainly the most contentious issue I’ve seen since I’ve been on the commission,” Commissioner Jared Bailey, who represented the area before redistricting this year, told OnlineAthens. This proposal remained controversial for many property owners of the area throughout the entire process. At tense public meetings concerning Buena Vista, home owners and activists arrived in large numbers to assert their position.
“People on both sides of the issue brought up valid arguments,” said Kelly Girtz, “but it got to the point where neither side was listening to the points made by the other.” He maintained that the decision to create and approve the smaller district was not an easy one, but that the commission had to respect the wishes of the people in the district. In the end, the issue came down to protecting the historic area without infringing on the rights of the property owners.
“It leaves something that everyone can say they dislike,” explained Girtz, “but that’s what a compromise is.”