The Macon-Bibb Planning & Zoning Commission recently re-proposed changes to Macon’s Historic District protections, which it had tabled some months ago in the face of opposition from the neighborhoods and preservationists. These proposed changes seem to be designed to appeal to developers who want to do projects within Macon’s historically zoned neighborhoods, as well as to lessen P&Z’s headaches relating to public oversight of these projects.
Public oversight and input in these cases would be severely reduced and limited if these proposals are adopted. Objections have been filed with P&Z from the various historic neighborhoods and preservation organizations, as well as from individuals who want to see our historic assets protected and preserved, and we hope the commission will once again listen to the people who are most affected by these regulations and shelve this idea once and for all.
WHAT THE CHANGES WOULD DO
The proposed changes reduce the effectiveness of the Historic Design Review Board, which has traditionally been staffed with community members who have a proven interest and expertise in historic preservation and act as the public’s eyes and ears regarding changes in our historic districts. Much of the public oversight the DRB has traditionally supplied would be eliminated and replaced by P&Z staff with no or, at best very little, chance for public input into the issues. Only issues which exceed an arbitrary percentage (20 percent in some cases) would henceforth be referred to the DRB.
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Matters determined by staff to not require the DRB/public input would be handled by staff — out of the public eye — and would be sent to the P&Z Commission for ratification, effectively prohibiting, in most cases, public input in a timely manner.
In addition, the proposed changes would open the door to more demolitions of our historic structures. Some serious loopholes are being added in the clauses which would enable irresponsible or unsympathetic property owners ways of working around the regulations. Demolitions would be permitted based on the opinion of only one building inspector or engineer with no provision that said expert be, in fact, well-versed in preservation matters, and with no provision for corroborating opinions.
Financial hardship and reduced economic return would be added as criteria to allow the demolition of an important historic structure. As would the patently ridiculous fact that a particular historic building may not be “the last of its kind.” Landscaping is totally removed from the DRB/public process. This makes no sense whatsoever and is not conducive to harmonious historic districts.
The Design Guidelines for Macon’s historic districts were adopted in March 1986. They have stood the test of time and have protected thousands of our historic structures, great and small. These guidelines lay out, in very easy to understand language, what can and cannot be done in the historic districts covered by them. They are public record and well-known to any potential property owner.
The guidelines have been followed for almost 30 years and have governed renovations and restorations of Macon’s historic structures as carried out by countless property owners in the districts. These guidelines are in line with Department of the Interior standards and are similar to historic preservation standards followed throughout the world and the United States.
PURPOSE OF PROPOSED CHANGES
The InTown Macon Neighborhood, as well as other Macon historic neighborhoods, lives and dies on the basis of strong and appropriate regulations that protect our neighborhood. While we understand P&Z’s desire to streamline the permit process, this desire for simplification, for simplification’s sake, should not be the controlling impetus for making changes to the guidelines. Rather, what changes are necessary, and there are a number of issues which should be addressed, should be implemented to solve the weaknesses within the process, rather than to weaken the process. Unfortunately, many of the proposed changes will weaken the preservation protections which our historic resources and neighborhoods depend upon.
Property ownership comes with responsibilities. Historic property ownership comes with even more. Property ownership in historic districts protected with design guidelines, like the ones in question here, imposes further sensitivity and restrictions. If we are to preserve our historic structures for the future it is required of us to hold a firm line, rather than loosen it, on how those buildings are renovated and repaired.
Ease and expediency are not necessarily what is called for when making changes in historic neighborhoods is concerned. Our historic neighborhoods require nuance as well as stringent protective regulations in order to continue to adapt and flourish. The property owners within those neighborhoods have made substantial investments of sweat and treasure in their properties.
The proposed changes to the guidelines seem to be designed to make things easier and more streamlined for two parties — P&Z and developers — and seem to not be at all focused on the protection of the existing property owners and their investments. There is a whopper of a fallacy at play here, and that is that stringent guidelines somehow slow progress in our community. This is ridiculous, to say the least, and is not based in fact.
REGULATIONS ATTRACT, NOT DETRACT
Communities across this country and the world, which boast substantial historic assets, thrive more when there are major obstacles to inappropriate developments within them than when there are lax regulations. Successful historic preservation attracts more of the same and creates a synergy that is simply not going to be there if the existing historic assets are not stringently protected.
The public, and historic preservation in our community, is much better served by an open and transparent and public vetting of proposed changes to our districts. To drastically reduce the DRB/public process from these decisions is counterproductive, at best. There is no requirement for the zoning enforcement officer or the commission to be experienced in historic preservation issues, so why would it be considered better in any sense of the word, to remove the one public entity that has that interest and education from the process? The DRB needs to be retained and needs to be involved on all matters, no matter how small, that pertain to our historic districts.
It is vitally important that the process of making these changes, which so directly affect Macon’s historic neighborhoods, be fully opened up and made more inclusive and transparent. InTown, and every other neighborhood currently covered by these regulations, as well as the historic neighborhoods which might potentially be covered by them, should be directly made a part of the process with open and public forums held in the neighborhoods prior to making any changes. This public outreach is not too much to ask when these proposed changes could easily have such negative and long-lasting impacts on our neighborhoods and our property values. The current approach, of quietly offering a public-comment time table, now closed, is not at all adequate and will not result in a fully-informed community.
AN ALTERNATIVE PROPOSAL
After consulting with other preservationists regionally, a proposal has surfaced that will, we think, be a much better solution for achieving Macon’s historic preservation goals more clearly and successfully, as well as meeting the commission’s desire to clarify issues. The Certified Local Government designation is held by most of Macon’s peer cities and would much better serve the purposes and intent of historic preservation in our community. It would not only signal our commitment to the tried and true precepts of historic preservation in this community, it would also open up avenues for all kinds of financial incentives for which we are not currently eligible.
The fact that Macon is not now a CLG seems to be a result of our historic preservation ordinance predating the establishment of the CLG designation in Georgia. An essential element of the designation is a Historic Preservation Commission which oversees many issues related to a community’s historic districts. The commission would work in tandem with planning and zoning but would relieve the P&Z Commission of having to micromanage the community’s historic resources and would assure that our preservation efforts stay on target. This, we think, could very well eliminate a great many of the aspects of the process that P&Z currently finds cumbersome.
InTown Macon joins the Historic Macon Foundation, the Vineville Neighborhood Association, NewTown Macon, the Macon Urban Development Authority and the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation in wholeheartedly supporting the idea of the Certified Local Government designation for Macon, and we feel that a better and less confusing policy is to leave the existing historic preservation regulations intact until such designation can be achieved. We urge P&Z not to make the proposed changes and to let the process of obtaining this designation work for the betterment of us all.
James H. Webb is president of the InTown Macon Neighborhood Association in Macon.