1. Opinion

Guest column: Historic designation benefits neighborhoods

On Thursday, the St. Petersburg City Council will consider changes to the city's preservation ordinance, as the ordinance hasn't had a comprehensive review in more than 25 years. One of the areas that has been recognized as needing change is the process for how neighborhoods apply for historic district designation.

The city's current process for creating historic districts is broken, as it's almost impossible to achieve a designation. This is reflected by the fact that only three areas — Roser Park, Lang's Bungalow Court and Granada Terrace, which are among our smallest historic neighborhoods — are historic districts.

Having historic districts is good for neighborhoods, so it's important to recognize the value of preserving what makes neighborhoods special while dispelling misperceptions about how districts work. Historic district designation doesn't mean that neighborhoods stop growing or evolving; rather, it's a way to ensure that growth fits the neighborhood's character.

The idea that designation benefits communities is backed up by the facts. Nationally regarded economist and preservation expert Donovan Rypkema, who speaks at the St. Petersburg Museum of History next week on "Why Preservation is Embraced by Successful Communities," has found that property values in local historic districts appreciate significantly faster than the market as a whole in the vast majority of cases, and at rates equivalent to the market in the worst case.

Simply put: local historic districts enhance property values.

In Roser Park's case, the designation prevented urban sprawl from the hospitals to the north, saving some of the city's unique homes, many of which have since sharply appreciated in value. And in Lang's Bungalow Court, district status prevented two of its 13 homes from being razed for a parking lot.

The problem with the current process is that a neighborhood must get "yes" votes from two-thirds of its property owners. This means the city counts a non-vote as a "no," making it nearly impossible to win a vote because many property owners simply won't return a ballot.

It is also important to realize that owners are only voting on whether the application can be submitted and reviewed. They aren't voting on becoming a district, because that is a decision made by City Council.

On Thursday, the City Council will consider a recommendation by city staff and the mayor to decide the vote by a clear majority of respondents. This means non-responding owners will no longer be counted as "no" votes.

We at St. Petersburg Preservation applaud this plan: It's fair to ask that if you're against becoming part of a historic district, you simply vote "no" instead of throwing the ballot away.

This change would help fix a system that's already out of step with the rest of Florida; only a small number of the state's local government preservation programs even require a vote as part of the process.

Clouding the issue as discussions about the ordinance have moved along, preservation opponents have been disseminating misinformation about historic districts. As just three examples:

• Opponents say that if you live in a historic district, you're told how to paint your house, and getting approval for even minor repairs is a nightmare. The reality is that historic districts don't legislate color, the process for approving renovations is not inordinately difficult, and ordinary repair is exempt from review.

• The opposition alleges that homeowners in historic districts can't get property insurance, or have to pay higher rates. This is untrue, and we have lined up insurance experts to debunk what's basically a scare tactic.

• And opponents say that historic districts depress property values. As noted in Rypkema's research, this simply isn't the case.

It's disappointing that the Pinellas Realtor Organization, the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce and Dr. David McKalip have been spreading this misinformation, with one opposition group even paying for robocalls. We hope the City Council will instead base decisions on the facts.

Our goal is to create a fair district application process — one that's not overly burdensome for neighborhoods and also one that provides adequate opportunity for property owners' input.

Bill Heller, Ed.D. is dean and professor, College of Education, University of South Florida St. Petersburg, and a member of the board of St. Petersburg Preservation.