Urban settings, by their nature, call for zoning regulations that balance the common good and individual property rights. A family's home may be their castle, but they cannot fill in the moat for a 7-Eleven. Likewise, cities can build character by preserving distinctive neighborhoods at the reasonable expense of individual owner control. In refashioning its historical preservation ordinance, the St. Petersburg City Council has so far listened to diverse viewpoints and thoughtfully balanced competing interests. With a final vote expected today, acceptance among city residents will depend on continued moderation.
St. Petersburg's proposed new preservation ordinance — five years in the making — includes dozens of proposed changes, but the main sticking point is the process for pursuing designation of local "historic" districts. Property owners in such neighborhoods need city approval before renovating, demolishing or building structures, to assure that changes conform to the district's distinctive character. Preservationists contend that historic status raises property values and encourages investment.
Under current rules, achieving historic designation for a neighborhood is too difficult. Two-thirds of property owners must affirmatively seek historic status on a mailed-in ballot before the City Council will even consider it. Property owners who do not return ballots are counted as "No" votes. In a 2006 campaign, 52 percent of the Old Northeast's 2,200 property owners cast votes — a high response rate — with 85 percent favoring historical status. But the measure failed because those results did not equal two-thirds approval by all property owners.
A proposed revision earlier this year would have pushed the pendulum too far in the opposite direction, allowing a simple majority of those sending in ballots to initiate the historic designation process. Under that formula, a small percentage of residents could kick-start a historic designation campaign, leaving the City Council with poor guidance about the true neighborhood sentiment. The bar for changing property rights should be high, because people buy into neighborhoods with expectations of how they can use their homes and land. Council members rightly resisted this easy route to historic preservation.
The revised proposal the council will consider today says that 30 percent of property owners in a neighborhood must petition for a vote on historic status before the city sends out ballots to all property owners. Then 67 percent of those who return ballots must vote "Yes" before the council holds public hearings and considers whether to establish a historic district. This formula is more balanced, requiring substantial property owner input. The council should also consider a minimum response rate for any valid ballot campaign, to further avoid status changes where neighborhood sentiment is unclear.
Among other considerations, the standard for removing a historic designation is the same as for establishing one. Granada Terrace is one of St. Petersburg's current three historic districts, and some property owners would like to reverse that status. The city should not run the risk that a low turnout ballot campaign could end up making a "historic" neighborhood "unhistoric.'' Property owners who move into neighborhoods and invest in their homes should not be subject to rule changes without clear support from a significant majority of their neighbors.