Recent Changes to St. Petersburg’s Historic Preservation Ordinance
By Ryan C. Griffin and Colby S. Hearn
On August 21, 2015, in the wee hours of the morning and after listening to hours of public comment, the St. Petersburg City Council narrowly approved a much debated ordinance change to St. Petersburg Historic Preservation Ordinance.
The ordinance change lowered the voting threshold required for a neighborhood to become a Local Historic District (“LHD”)1 to 50% of all property owners in any proposed district or neighborhood. Prior to the ordinance change, the St. Petersburg Historic Preservation Ordinance, which has been in place since the 1980’s, required 66% of all property owners within a proposed district or neighborhood to vote “yes” to become a LHD.
Supporters of the group, St. Petersburg Preservation and city staff initially requested an ordinance change to 50% + 1 of only those homeowners who voted, which logically could result in a very small percentage or a minority of homeowners controlling the designation for an entire neighborhood. Supporters for the change claimed that the 66% voting threshold of all property owners made it nearly impossible for a neighborhood to reach LHD status. However, opponents of the ordinance change pointed to the fact that changing the designation of a neighborhood to historic has significant repercussions on an individual’s property rights and, hence, should require a super majority vote. It follows that the August 21, 2015 ordinance change is seen as a compromise between the two sides.2
Under the old ordinance, in the Old Northeast neighborhood of St. Petersburg, for example, 1,474 of the approximately 2,200 property owners would have had to approve an application to become a LHD. Now, under the new ordinance, only approximately 1,101 property owners must approve the application initiation. Thus, 373 fewer votes are now required for the Old Northeast neighborhood to become a LHD.
How the Changes to the Historic Preservation Ordinance affect you?
Since it is now easier for a neighborhood to become a LHD, it is likely that local preservation groups and/or property owners may be invigorated to campaign for their districts or neighborhoods to become LHDs or, on the contrary, there may be property owners campaigning against such an effort. Therefore, it is critical to understand the advantages and disadvantages of such a designation before getting a knock on your door from a neighbor asking for your vote to become a LHD because it is even more difficult to “unring” the bell and undue the designation of a LHD. Further, it is important to note, once designated, a property owner cannot “opt out” of a LHD, if he or she so desires. The historic designation, barring another change in the ordinance, will likely run with the property and the neighborhood forever.3
Those in favor of historic designations for neighborhoods state that the designation helps preserve the character, uniqueness, and exterior appearance of a neighborhood. Supporters claim this is accomplished by adding additional design and repair standards as well as creating an additional review board to oversee any proposed work to the exterior of a house (site walls, fences, decks, patios, pergolas and sheds are also subject to this review).4
Opponents complain that the additional design and repair standards will increase building and repair costs for the property owners. By way of illustration, for example, the repair standards in a LHD may require a property owner to replace 50+ year old wood or cold rolled steel windows with comparable wood or cold rolled steel windows, which may no longer be in production, instead of installing energy efficient, hurricane grade, vinyl windows. Under this example, the property owner will have no choice but to hire a custom restoration specialist or carpenter to build replacement windows or special order the windows at a much higher cost than purchasing windows readily available in many local window or home improvement stores. Furthermore, a property owner may be restricted from taking advantage of the many advances in technology over the last half-century which provide for greater energy efficiency, safety, impact resistance security, and convenience. Opponents also complain that the designation may restrict an owner’s rights to renovate, remodel, and “add-on” to a property, which will directly impact their property’s value and scare off potential buyers from a neighborhood. There is also a concern that the additional review board will result in increased delays and arbitrary decisions.
Additional Important Considerations:
Some studies have shown that historic districts hold their value better than non-designated areas5. Many of these studies, however, did not comparatively measure or take into consideration the amount or scale of unused development potential that exists on properties located within a local historic landmark district. For these reasons, it is difficult to measure the perceived or real impact on overall property values. Naturally, some buyers may consciously choose to avoid designated neighborhoods whereas other buyers may actively target properties within a LHD. Consequently, a LHD status could play a pivotal role in the real estate market place for neighborhoods as well as resale values.
The granting of tax exemptions to owners who make improvements to historic properties was authorized under Florida law in 1992. Pinellas County subsequently adopted an ordinance making provisions for an Ad Valorem Tax exemption (AVT) under state law. The City of St. Petersburg has entered into an interlocal agreement with Pinellas County to allow for these tax breaks. The program provides an exemption from tax increases on the improvements to historic properties for City and County Ad Valorem taxes for up to a ten (10) year period. The exemptions for historic properties are intended for the physical improvements necessary to restore or rehabilitate the exterior of a historic structure, which may also include additions or alterations.
Ability to Obtain/Maintain Insurance:
Some historic preservation planners claim that the insurance on the property is not affected by the property being designated historic, because in a catastrophic event, the property owner is not required to build the structure back identically to its original construction, complete with period fixtures, materials and construction techniques.
Others claim that a historic designation will increase annual insurance premiums since the age of the homes within this district will only continue to increase since it will be difficult to build new homes within a LHD and because a property owner may not able to utilize advancements in flood and wind mitigation. Opponents also cited to the fact that the replacement costs for older homes in a LHD are higher which will logically result in higher insurance premiums.
In conclusion, as with any change, there will be foreseeable impacts, some of which have been identified above. While a LHD designation may be a good choice for one neighborhood it may be a bad choice for another. It is also important to point out that a property owner does not need a neighborhood to become a LHD in order for his or her individual property to be deemed historic. A property owner can apply to have his or her individual property designated historic irrespective of a district designation.6 Hence, the best advice is to be well informed, be active in your neighborhood discussions, and educate your other neighbors so they can make informed decisions prior to voting “yes” or “no”.
1 Currently, the city has three LHDs: Roser Park was designated in 1987 and has 68 properties in the district; Granada Terrace was designated in 1988 and has 69 properties in the district; and Lang’s Bungalow Court was designated in 2014 and has 13 properties in the district.
2 The vote itself does not grant LHD status, however, it simply allows an application to be filed with the City. Once an application is submitted, a public hearing process begins. By law, property owners in a proposed local historic district must be notified of the proposal so that they may testify in favor or against any designation during the required public hearings. After that, the City Council votes on whether or not the area should be designated as a LHD. In making its decision, City Council will weigh many factors, including historic significance, architectural integrity, and the degree of property owner support in the proposed district. However, there is a presumption that once the 50% threshold is met, the City Council will likely find sufficient factors to affirm and approve the application. This, of course, puts added importance on the initial 50% threshold vote.
3 A large group of property owners within the Grenada Terrace neighborhood (a current LHD) have recently sought to undue the designation of their neighborhood due to unwanted property restrictions and costs associated with a LHD. However, they have been faced with the realization that it is far more difficult, if not impossible, to undue the designation of a LHD since the factors considered when Grenada Terrace sought to become a LHD in 1987 have not changed and, in fact, have only become more prevalent (i.e. age of the homes in the neighborhood, historical significance, etc.)
4 For properties in LHDs, the Community Planning and Preservation Commission (“Commission”) will require historically appropriate rehabilitation or construction. As such, a Certificate of Appropriateness (“COA”) is required for any work to the exterior of any building. An application will be provided by the Planning & Historic Preservation Division of the Planning and Economic Development Department. Any necessary photographs and drawings will be submitted with the application to provide staff with enough information to process the request. Additionally, owners of all properties within the City are required to obtain a demolition permit from the Construction Services and Permitting Division prior to demolishing any portion of a building. Structures within a historic district must also first obtain approval from the Commission. Once the following is achieved, the proposed rehabilitation or construction will then have to undergo a secondary review by the local building department.
5 A group of 20 local real estate appraisers that were opponents to the ordinance change opined to the St. Petersburg City Council that a LHD designation would, in fact, hurt property values.
6 The property to be designated should be 50 years old or older, and noteworthy for its design or construction techniques, for its information potential, or its association with a significant person or event. A historic structure must also retain it’s, among other considerations, physical integrity and be a good example of period architecture.