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].”


Buena Vista historic district approved, though many are left unhappy

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.”

The owners of this home proudly display their support sign for the designation of Buena Vista as an historic district. This sign contrasts sharply with others in the area that read, “Say No To Buena Vista Historic District.”