The Heritage Committee, which has long complained of impotence, flexed its muscles at the Nov. 16 council meeting to convince city officials to back two of its power plays.
At the request of the committee, city officials imposed a year's moratorium on Mills Act applications for K-rated homes, allowing the committee to shore up its guidelines and policies for eligibility recommendations to the council. The council also acceded to the committee's vehement opposition to a proposal to exempt expensively restored historic structures from the art in public places requirement. The moratorium and the denial of exemptions were approved 4 to 0 by a short-handed council, with ailing Mayor Elizabeth Pearson absent.
"As [committee chair] Jon Madison has often said, we lack teeth," said committee member Molly Bing. "So I was very pleased about the moratorium."
City K-rated homes mostly maintain their original integrity and demonstrate a particular architectural style or time period. They are not ranked quite as high as the E-rated homes listed on the city's Historical Inventory, which are usually in excellent condition and unique — some even eligible for the National Registry of Historic Places. C-rated structures are neither unique nor distinctive, but they contribute to the character of the neighborhood.
Owners of qualified buildings that sign the state Mills Act contracts provide a schedule of maintenance or repairs they propose to make on the structures. In return, property taxes are significantly reduced — some as much as $50,000 a year, which has caused some belly aching by city officials.
"It is important to have the Mills Act for the preservation of historic structures, but we are cognizant that it costs the city money and needs to be judiciously granted," Heritage Committee member Bonnie Hano said. "We are not as consistent as we might be and we need to clarify the criteria.
"We want to make sure property owners are using the [tax reduction] to for the upkeep of the property."
The Mills Act has been around since 1976. In 1993, the city approved the use of the act as an incentive to preserve historic structures and in 2006 expanded eligibility to K-rated homes.
When the Planning Commission amended the city's Historical Preservation element in 2006, there were 745 homes listed on the inventory: 130 E's, 351 K's and 258 C's.
To be eligible for the Mills Act, homes must be placed on the city's Historical Register.
For years the perks of the Mills Act were largely overlooked by owners of eligible properties. However, lately there has been a rash of applications for inclusion on the register, a pre-requisite to a Mills Act contract, and subsequently for participation in the act.
Owners of K-rated property whose applications were filed by Nov. 15 will be allowed to proceed. Owners of E-rated structures are not affected by the moratorium.
Later in the council meeting, Hano, Heritage Committee member Rick Gold and Arts Commissioner Pat Kollenda, convinced the council to deny a request to release historic building owners from their art in public places obligation, which applies to renovations on any structure or new construction valued at $225,000 or more.
"Do the art or pay," Councilman Kelly Boyd said.
Developers who do not want to provide art at the site, the cost of which must be at least one percent of
the valuation of the project have the option of the making a donation of 1.5 percent of the valuation to the Art-in-Lieu Fund, which finances public art in another location.
"Historic restorations are in themselves art," said Sam Goldstein, owner of the extensively renovated Heisler Building. "They should not be treated like other buildings."
Gold countered that buildings on the city's Historical Register get substantial financial benefits and should not be exempted from the public art requirement.
"That is especially true of Mills Act buildings, where most of the work doesn't come near the money they save," Bing said.
Owners also get relief from some building, zoning and zoning code requirements
The Arts Commission unanimously voted against the exemption at it Sept. 27 meeting, at which Kollenda and Commissioner Ken Auster said an exemption should not be made for just one project, referring to the Heisler Building.
"Sam did an amazing job, but the building should not be exempt," Kollenda said.
Goldstein stated that the exemption would apply to all historic structures, not just his.
The Heritage Committee echoed the commission's unanimous vote at its Oct. 18 meeting.
Consideration of an exemption by the commission and the committee was requested by the council.