1. Opinion

Protecting historic properties and property rights Editorial: Getting historic preservation right

St. Petersburg should keep fine-tuning its plan for designating historic properties.
Published Jan. 17, 2019

St. Petersburg is right to focus on historic preservation in this era of booming development. But the city's plan to add dozens of properties to a list for potential historic designation should also respect individual property rights, especially when it comes to private homes. While the plan is on hold after concerns were raised, some fine-tuning is in order to ensure a clear and balanced process.

The Tampa Bay Times' Waveney Ann Moore reported recently that the city is looking to expand on a list developed in 2006 of 55 properties eligible for preservation. After studying neighborhood surveys, the city added more buildings that would bring the list to more than 200. They include landmarks such as the Williams Park Band Shell, the sanctuary of Pasadena Community Church and the main city library on Ninth Ave. N, all of which were designed by noted mid-century modern architect William Harvard Sr. There are also several private homes, such as the "birdcage" houses in Pinellas Point and original Allendale homes built by developer Cade Allen. Some homeowners sought the designation, but others are opposed — and their concerns need to be heard.

The proposed process that could lead to a historic designation is reasonable but would benefit from more specifics. It would not affect a property owner's ability to renovate or add on to an existing structure. If an owner applied for a demolition permit, that would trigger a 30-day stay and allow notification to anyone who requests to receive the information. A third-party application to designate the property historic would put the demolition request on hold. A formal designation would have to go through two public hearings and win approval by the City Council.

Such cases will always involve a degree of subjectivity, so there should be ground rules to bring uniformity and consistency where possible. The Community Planning and Preservation Commission made the smart decision to table the matter for a few months while city staff researches how to alert buyers that a property is on the list and revises the list to remove properties no longer considered eligible.

Some further questions the city should be prepared to answer: In cases where the property owner is opposed to the designation, will their position be given greater weight? Will the condition of the property factor into the decision? Is there a time limit on when a decision must be made so property owners aren't left in limbo when they have plans to rebuild or sell, impatient lenders or buyers waiting and jobs or moves on the line? What is the appeal process?

Historic preservation is a valuable pursuit in St. Petersburg, home to many distinctive structures that contribute to the city's unique character. That should not be lost amid the current boom of luxury apartments and high-rise condominiums. But property owners' rights also must be preserved. The city is on the right path with a careful process that just needs some fine tuning.