Starting from scratch |

Starting from scratch

Committee to toss current historic preservation ordinance

Brandon Gee

— John Fielding sums up the issue of historic preservation in two lines from Rudyard Kipling’s “The Law of the Jungle:”

“The Lair of the Wolf is his refuge, but where he has digged it too plain,/The Council shall send him a message, and so he shall change it again.”

Historic preservation is an issue of the individual’s relationship to society, and where one might supersede the other. The tenacity with which the city of Steamboat Springs can preserve historic homes – the refuges of its individual citizens – in the name of the broader community has proved a volatile political issue in recent months. Now, a citizens committee thinks it is close to a solution acceptable to all sides.

The first thing all members of the Historic Preservation Policy Review Committee can agree on, said Chairman Jim Moylan, is that the city’s current policies don’t work. The current preservation system is one of mandatory review but voluntary compliance. Development applications involving properties more than 50 years old are subject to review by the city’s Historic Preservation Advisory Commission. But the most that body can do is make recommendations for projects that might alter the historic character of any historic structure and impose up to a 90-day waiting period on them.

Moylan said that system “doesn’t work for anybody.” The policy review committee has until the end of March to craft an ordinance to present to the Steamboat Springs City Council for consideration, but Moylan said the legislation is already starting to take shape. He said the committee plans to recommend that the city create its own historic register and pay to inventory all its properties to determine whether they are eligible for listing. Actual listing, however, would be subject to the owner’s consent. Only eligible properties that opt to be included on the register would be subject to mandatory design guidelines, said Moylan, who also said the committee will strongly encourage City Council to adopt incentives for properties that do so. Moylan said listing criteria would be based on more significant measures than an arbitrary age such as 50 years. The committee is planning two public hearings – March 6 and 17 – to solicit feedback from the public. Moylan hopes to have a draft ordinance in hand for the March 17 hearing.

“The idea would be to have the ordinance we plan to show City Council and let people take shots at it,” he said.

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Old Town resident Troy Brookshire is encouraged by the committee’s work.

“When they started down the road of mandatory compliance was the thing that sent all my neighbors up in arms,” he said. “They’ll be more supportive of the purpose when the city isn’t regulating mandatorily.”

Brookshire said he has no problem providing a voluntary vehicle for those who want to preserve their property. He compared the committee’s planned recommendations to Routt County’s Purchase of Development Rights Program, which compensates landowners who voluntarily put their land under conservation easements with cash.

“I think everybody wins under rural conservation easements,” Brookshire said. “I believe it has hurt the value of rural property, but nobody forced those people to do it, and therefore I think it’s fair.”

Fielding also is skittish about mandatory compliance, but he would like to see the ordinance go even further than the steps Moylan outlined. For example, if the owner of a particularly historic property opts out of the mechanisms for preservation, Fielding said the city should be willing to purchase the property, or even exercise eminent domain and condemn it. He guessed that the amount of money required to do so would pale in comparison to the amount already being spent by the city to preserve open space.

While he supports a more aggressive approach for the most significant properties, Fielding believes the owners of marginally significant ones should be given a break. He uses his own Depression-era Old Town home as an example. Fielding is in the middle of a multi-year, Victorian-style remodel that eventually will swallow the entirety of the original structure. It is a project that goes against the recommendations of the Historic Preservation Advisory Commission, of which he is now a member. Fielding stressed that his opinions do not represent those of the commission.

“I would not be in favor of mandating that someone who bought a house similar to mine be subject to requirements,” Fielding said.

Fielding said the original builders of many of Steamboat’s oldest homes built them quickly and cheaply and didn’t intend for them to be around forever. He described Steamboat’s most dominant architectural style as “the substantially altered modest home” and said he is loath to prevent the “expression of personality through architectural enhancements.”

After all, Fielding said, one generation’s misstep might be considered character by the next.