Town hall addresses 'trade-offs' of historic district commission

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

By Samantha Jones

Citizen.Editor.Eureka@gmail.com

Citizens will vote in November to keep or abolish the Eureka Springs Historic District Commission, so the city brought in a preservation expert to address the purpose of the commission at a town hall on Sunday, Oct. 4.

Mayor Butch Berry kicked off the meeting, saying the town hall was meant to "inform citizens with the actual facts and not the rumors and innuendos and misinformation that's been going on about the historic district."

Catherine Barrier, the city's certified local government coordinator for the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program, said it's a "trade-off" to adopt a historic district commission.

"You give up a little bit of your freedom to do whatever you want so other things won't happen," Barrier said. "The benefit would be that your neighbor can't tear down his historic cottage that's right across from you that you like looking at and think is important, but you can't tear down your historic building that you own … well, unless you have a really good reason that you've taken to the historic district commission."

Barrier explained that the local historic district is created by an enabling state ordinance, which specifies that a city with a local historic district must have a historic district commission to review construction applications. The reason local historic districts exist, Barrier said, is because of "dramatic demolition situations."

"Something very precious to people gets demolished and they decide that it's better to restrict their own property rights than it is to let other things like this happen," Barrier explained, showing a photo of Penn Station in New York.

Barrier said the original Penn Station was demolished in the 1960s and gave rise to the landmark preservation ordinance in New York, "which was one of the landmark preservation ordinances in the country."

A major benefit of having a local historic district, Barrier said, is the access to state and federal grant funding. Additionally, Barrier said, tax credits are available to those who rehabilitate historic property.

"If you have a house that still has historic integrity, we have tax credits for 25 percent of qualifying rehabilitation work," Barrier said. "You have to do $5,000 worth of work and you can get up to $20,000 in credit for the work you do, which is pretty good."

Barrier said areas that have a local historic district have "considerably higher tourism receipts."

"From my understanding … historic districts preserve or increase property values across the country, and they're more steady in downturns and keeping historic buildings is more environmentally responsible," Barrier said.

Barrier said most commissions in Arkansas approve more than 95 percent of applications they receive.

"If the applicant wishes to appeal the decisions, they can file an appeal with the circuit court," Barrier said. "This is not the same as it is in most states. In most states, that appeal would go to the planning commission, but this is dictated by the state historic districts act."

City preservation officer Glenna Booth said she reviewed the last three and a half years of applications, saying the commission received 855 applications and denied six.

"The commission does try to work with any applicant whose application does not meet guidelines and suggest modifications and try to work it out," Booth said.

A citizen asked "what safeguards would be in place" to preserve historic buildings if the historic district commission is abolished and Barrier said those protections are outlined in the enabling ordinance to create a local historic district.

"I don't know of any way to have the historic district ordinance without the historic district act," Barrier said. "It may be possible to pass separate legislation under the zoning code, but it would not include any protections on demolitions and it would require another design review commission."

Barrier suggested for the commission to offer public meetings where guidelines would be reviewed, saying guidelines should be reviewed and amended by the commission on a regular cycle "every year, two years or three years."

"I say that not necessarily because I think the guidelines, the basic guidelines, need to be changed … but because it's always a good idea to update them, and it's always a good idea to do it in a way that the public becomes more familiar with the guidelines," Barrier said.

Arkansas' local historic districts differ from those of other states, Barrier said, so it's especially important for new citizens of the state to be informed. Two citizens said they recently moved to Eureka Springs and didn't receive any information on the historic district, while one citizen said she has purchased two homes in the area and received information on the historic district both times. Historic district commissioner Dee Bright said it's important to the commission to get that information to local realtors.

"In the last three years, Glenna Booth and two or three commissioners have met with the realtor board and given them pamphlets," Bright said.

"It's frustrating not to be able to have the entire city and the real estate agents who sell homes tell people we're in a historic district," Berry said. "To us who live here, it seems rather obvious but I realize people moving here sometimes don't realize it. Realtors are required to inform you, but that doesn't mean they're going to."

Berry thanked everyone for coming to the town hall and asking questions.

"If we don't ask the questions, we don't know," Berry said. "This is an important issue coming up. I appreciate everybody being here and being voters, and be sure to go out and vote."

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  • It was very clear from the town hall meeting if the HDC is abolished we lose the state standing and the protection. The myth or misinformation is that we will have a historic district In truth it is in name only! Absolutely no way to stop demolitions other than turning in your neighbor and filing a claim with circuit court. That means to protect the district you will have to go to court!

    -- Posted by marchhare on Thu, Oct 8, 2020, at 12:53 PM
  • If you have bought a house in the historic district, why would you want to change its historic-ness?? Isn’t that the point of buying here? If not, then just leave! Don’t ruin our town for us. Just move somewhere else where it doesn’t matter what you do to your house!!

    -- Posted by frogg13 on Fri, Oct 9, 2020, at 8:31 PM
  • You worry about things,that in this time period, are of LITTLE importance. For a town of such educated citizens...common sense seems absent in almost everything you say...or do these day's. HOWEVER...after 20 years I can't say I'm suprised.

    -- Posted by Two6pac on Sat, Oct 10, 2020, at 12:34 PM
  • This is the perfect issue for the “residents against tourists” vs “residents because of tourists” advocates. We can finally settle much of the argument. Most of us realize that tourists are the reason for the raising or lowering of our standard of living as residents and even the city’s existence itself. We've all heard some claim that tourists visit us because we’re “quirky”. Yeah, that town has a uniqueness, but the "quirky" silliness is usually said by those who contribute little, create tons of conflict, but want to claim some significant, if intangible, role in the town’s economic draw. There's even a few who would rather do without tourism altogether. Several even use the “residents over tourists” argument as a political tool to fool the naïve. Now it’s time to finally fish or cut bait. If we want to keep the standard of living by attracting tourists because of the historical nature of the town (the reason they come), then we vote not to abolish the HDC. If, however, we want to get rid of tourists because we believe we can exist without them, we should vote to abolish the HDC. Heck, even if we starve, we’ll still have our “quirkiness”.

    -- Posted by Theuncommonsense on Sat, Oct 10, 2020, at 4:12 PM
  • The tourist that come to town these days do not come for any past or present historical nature. The town "pimped it self out" to the bikers years ago. That is THE ONLY TOURIST" this town has, and even though I dispise how they seem to have run the few other tourist off, I still see a dollar as a dollar. I'm not nieave to that fact tourism evolves. Historical significance can be found in abandon/ghost towns thru out the country. That is THE future of this town. From multi story parking garages to nepotism in city hall to blown up sewer plants to crack dealing city council members to horse tailed butt mooning the Christians...well I could go on and on. Lookie...this place was doomed, covid was the last nail.

    -- Posted by Two6pac on Sat, Oct 10, 2020, at 6:25 PM
  • The tourist that come to town these days do not come for any past or present historical nature. The town "pimped it self out" to the bikers years ago. That is THE ONLY TOURIST" this town has, and even though I dispise how they seem to have run the few other tourist off, I still see a dollar as a dollar. I'm not nieave to that fact tourism evolves. Historical significance can be found in abandon/ghost towns thru out the country. That is THE future of this town. From multi story parking garages to nepotism in city hall to blown up sewer plants to crack dealing city council members

    -- Posted by Two6pac on Sat, Oct 10, 2020, at 6:39 PM
  • Sorry it just upsets me to see how this town has been run

    -- Posted by Two6pac on Sat, Oct 10, 2020, at 6:49 PM
  • No one can fault you for being frustrated with the three-ring circus that has been Eureka Springs politics. We've had our share of clowns who were oblivious to the embarrassment they caused and the many times they made us the laughingstock of the state. All we can do is continue to hope for clear thinking citizens who will elect more city council members that have a real stake in the success of this city and who have skill, wisdom and legitimate experience rather than just spare time and a need for attention.

    -- Posted by Theuncommonsense on Sun, Oct 11, 2020, at 3:27 PM
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