Coalition Seeks New Solutions for Historic Preservation

Even if you don’t live in one of Montgomery’s beautiful historic districts, you still benefit from their character and distinctiveness. Aesthetically, they are a joy to walk or drive through. Economically, they help us all by generating tourism and marketing our distinctive character to prospective new residents. But as the city grows and changes, preserving its historic areas becomes both more challenging and more important. New folks move into historic districts and cut down trees, choose bizarre exterior paint, or remove chimneys. Sometimes this is necessary (trees die, chimneys collapse), but sometimes it’s done in violation of the codes in place to protect our historic neighborhoods.

Remember back in 2013 when downtown’s historic Pan-Am service station was demolished without notice or a permit? If you’re new to town, a lot of people were rightly outraged by the sudden teardown. Here’s what the Advertiser said on the matter:

JB Waste also was found guilty in Montgomery Municipal Court in June for failing to obtain a permit from the city for the demolition. Because the building is in a historic district, the contractor was required to get permission from the city’s Architectural Review Board before applying for a permit. The company didn’t seek permission or apply for a permit, and as a result was required to pay a $500 fine and another $357 in court fees.

That’s a pretty small fine, but it’s currently the biggest penalty the city has to leverage against folks who don’t follow the historic preservation process. For motivated developers, $500 is a drop in the bucket, a simple minor additional cost of doing business. To change behavior, a fine has to be more than a nuisance.

Two weeks ago, the newly-formed Historic Neighborhoods’ Coalition met over at Old Alabama Town to hear from experts and talk about some possible solutions for more stringent enforcement of our historic preservation codes. We talked about two key issues. First, it is clear that more needs to be done to increase notification to property owners about the ARB. Sometimes people buy in historic neighborhoods and claim ignorance of the rules after a violation has occurred. They may actually be correct in some instances, so we need to make sure that ignorance of the law is never used as an excuse for breaking it. Second, the rules need more teeth.

Christy Anderson, the Historic Preservation Coordinator for the City of Montgomery, spoke about the existing efforts to notify owners. The city can’t hike the fines for violation – those are set in state code. She told us that she continues to educate realtors about ARB rules and that her office sends postcards to property owners in historic districts. These efforts are still not enough – often absent owners don’t get the mail sent to their rental properties. Sometimes ARB takes property owners to court. This doesn’t happen that often – Anderson says she’s been in court four times in the last year, and only for cases where the property owner didn’t respond to a citation or didn’t undo “improvements” to a property. Still, Anderson said that sometimes judges don’t levy the full fine even when a case seems to deserve it. She theorized that ARB cases might seem relatively unimportant when they come up in a docket after a domestic violence or other criminal case.

ARB member (and frequent MML contributor) Elizabeth Brown spoke about two possible solutions that might help enforcement. One idea would be to create a separate “housing court” or special day when housing cases are grouped together on the docket. A new, specialized “property court” would require action by the city council, or possibly the mayor’s office. A special docket day within existing court calendars would require judicial action.

Another idea that seemed like it might have some traction would be to require notification to the buyer of historic district designation at closing. This would mean that anyone buying property in the historic districts would sign a document informing them that the property is in a historic district and what that means. Practically, this would require the city to record a notice in the chain of title for each property.

This would be comparatively inexpensive – Anderson told us that there are 2,200 properties currently in Montgomery’s historic districts. Each recording would cost $8.50, so the total cost to cover every property would be about $19,000. That seems like a lot until you consider that if the city had to defend just one protracted lawsuit from an owner asserting “property rights,” that might cost more than $100,000. Anderson and Brown framed this idea as liability protection for the city and a good shortcut around owners who claim that they “didn’t know” about ARB procedures.

We’ve got good examples in this state of cities that have prioritized historic preservation. Mobile and Selma both attract people from around the nation (and around the world) who want to look at their immaculate examples of historic homes and buildings. For leaders in those cities, preservation isn’t just some mushy idea of “future generations,” it’s a practical matter of tourism and dollars and cents. We can capitalize on their models and send a message to the rest of the world that our buildings are just as worthy of long-term protection.

There will always be people who break the law, feeling entitled to alter, modify and even destroy property that they own. But that’s not a reason to make the law as good as it can be. When we treat historic buildings as a valued resource to be protected, everybody wins.

To learn more about the ARB process, download their brochure here. We’ve also uploaded the relevant sections of the city code passed out at the meeting. Download that document here.

Kate and Stephen are Midtown residents with two cats, a dog, ten fish, a garden, an old house and a sense of adventure. They write about life in Midtown here and about life in Montgomery at their blog Lost in Montgomery.

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There Are 6 Brilliant Comments

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  1. One thing I fail to see mentioned in this article the ARB itself. It is high time, especially with the attitude of the current city government, that the ARB be given a serious makeover. There apparently is too much favor being given to devolopment, or developers over protecting the historical fabric of the city. The means of selecting board members should be taken out of the hands of the City Council, and not be handed out as political favors. There should be some form of selection of board members to insure that there are qualified people sitting on the board. There have been way too many serious assaults on significant historical property in the last couple years to let this situation continue.

  2. Phillip Sides says:

    why did you delete my comment?
    These problems exist because you are not willing to admit the real problems and tackle them!!!!!

    • admin says:

      Hi Phillip – we didn’t delete your comment; it just took time to get through moderation because you’re a first-time commenter. Got to watch out for spam! Thanks for reading and discussing. We expect there are many like you who would support ARB reform of some kind.

  3. The ARB is only going to be as good as its members are knowledgeable. If Montgomery were to become a Certified Local Government, I understand the Historic
    Development Commisison and the Architectural Review Board would be eligible for free training on the things in their purview. So let’s encourage the City to pursue CLG status.

    • Preservation Fan says:

      Attention all developers: The City of Montgomery is now accepting “fines” for forgiveness of violations of COA’s. Lying to the ARB is an accepted practice. A wink, a nod and $500 or less paid into the city coffers will be accepted from any petitioner or developer who want to do as they please with the historic districts. There is no preservation in Montgomery.

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