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Revised Landmark Ordinance Back Before Council

By Judith Scherr
Tuesday December 05, 2006

The City Council will consider a revised Landmarks Preservation Ordinance at its meeting tonight (Tuesday), likely kicking off a fight to repeal the law before it takes effect. 

The revised ordinance was approved by the council in July, but put on hold when a ballot initiative that would have instituted some minor revisions in the current law was placed on the November ballot. The initiative, Measure J, lost at the ballot box and so the July ordinance is back before council today.  

The vote is being repeated because of a date change and the addition of a section explaining the need for revising the ordinance: “As a result of the extensive public process and negotiations, this chapter as reenacted in 2006 includes numerous compromises intended to address the legitimate concerns and aspirations of all stakeholders,” the new section states.  

Due to a city staff error, the July version of the ordinance, rather than the December version, was placed on the city website and in the council agenda packets. As of Monday morning, councilmembers had not been advised they had the wrong version in their packets, according to Councilmember Kriss Worthington, who said the vote should be delayed because of the error. 

A significant change from the original ordinance to the version before the council tonight (and in July) is the strict timeline during which the public is permitted to bring its weight to bear on the process, said Laurie Bright, one of the authors of Measure J. 

“It’s going to virtually eliminate public participation,” Bright told the Daily Planet. “The timeline is so short that neighbors will not have a chance to organize themselves to prevent demolition.”  

Bright plans to kick off a referendum drive against the law as soon as the second reading is approved, which is expected to be Dec. 12 unless the first reading is further delayed.  

The draft ordinance outlines the following steps to landmarking a property: (The steps below have been simplified. The full text of the ordinance marked “supplemental” can be found in the council agenda on the city website at 

• A property owner asks the city whether or not a property merits consideration as a landmark in a process called a Request for Determination. 

• When it receives such a request, the city contracts with an independent consultant from a Landmarks Preservation Commission-approved list to complete a historic assessment. The applicant bears the cost. Alternatively, applicants can write their own reports, which would then be reviewed by an LPC-approved consultant at the applicant’s expense. 

• The LPC considers the completed Request for Determination at a public hearing to take place at its first regular meeting no less than 21 days after completion of the document.  

• If the LPC doesn’t initiate the property at this meeting (initiation is the beginning of the process by which the commission considers whether a property merits a historic designation), it can consider initiation at its next regular meeting. At that meeting the commission initiates the property or takes no action. 

• If it isn’t initiated at the second meeting, members of the public have 30 days to collect enough signatures to initiate it by petition. (Exceptions are made for environmental review.) 

• If no determination has been made within the above timeline, no initiation or designation can be made of the property within two years. 

Landmarks Commissioner Carrie Olson helped write the compromise ordinance and contended, in an interview Monday, that the timeline is “something to be encouraged.” Many times, in an open-ended process, interested people don’t come back to the commission, she said.  

Still, she said, she understands that in unusual cases—for example, in discussions with Native Americans, archeologists, neighbors and other groups around landmarking the shellmound under the Spengers parking lot—the commission may need to hear from several groups, which takes time. The city attorney’s advice was, however, that strict timelines were a legally mandated part of the revision, Olson said. 

Opponents of the revised ordinance say developers could flood the commission with applications, impeding the commission’s ability to deal with them within the mandated timeframe.  

But Olson said she thinks that would not happen. And if it were to happen, commissioners “would have to go to council to have the provision suspended,” she said. If the public didn’t get a proper hearing by the commission, they would be able to fight the city in court, she said. 

Olson further argued that if the consultant report says to tear down a structure that has historic merit, “my hope is that we have a strong enough commission to say we disagree.”  

Bright, however, calls RFD “Request for Development,” and says he believes he will be able to get the approximate 4,500 to 5,000 valid signatures necessary to put the measure on the November 2008 ballot. Referendum proponents have thirty days from the second reading to collect signatures. 

“Unfortunately it works out—probably by design—that signature gathering is happening during the holidays,” Bright said. If he gets the required signatures, Bright said he believes the original ordinance will be in effect until the November 2008 election.