Baton Rouge developer Richard Preis is calling for a Metro Council review of the Historic Preservation Commission, alleging its members make decisions based on personal vendettas.
And at least one councilman, Ryan Heck, said he plans to sponsor an ordinance abolishing the commission.
“The board has no power; they don’t need to be there,” Heck said after a Metro Council zoning meeting. “It’s just another unneeded government intrusion in people’s lives and it’s time to make a change.”
Carolyn Bennett, the commission chairwoman, said in an phone interview that the commission helps owners of properties in historic neighborhoods and owners of landmark properties receive tax credits, and enables the city-parish to qualify for grants.
“To me, most people want heritage, culture and their landmarks protected,” she said.
Preis’ complaint stems from an incident a few months ago when he and Old Town Development removed an oak tree from his lot at North Sixth Street and State Capitol Drive in historic Spanish Town without seeking a certificate of appropriateness from the East Baton Rouge Historic Preservation Commission.
Old Town manager Trevor Bailey said the water oak was damaged and presented a threat to the adjacent rental property.
He said that before he “so much as moved a blade of grass on the property” he asked the city-parish Public Works Department if he needed a permit. DPW told him he could proceed. And only after the tree was removed, he said, did he and Preis learn they needed permission from the Preservation Commission.
They were fined $500 by the commission in August, but the Parish Attorney’s Office subsequently said the commission has no authority to impose fines.
On Wednesday, the Metro Council overturned the Preservation Commission’s decision and revoked the fine.
Bill Huey, a member of the commission, argued to the council that Preis, a longtime Spanish Town landowner, should have known the certificate of appropriateness was required.
Huey also said the parish attorney had previously led the commission to believe it had the authority to impose fines, but after hearing the most recent opinion, the commission changed course and recommended a fine to DPW.
Preis has a history of butting heads with residents in Spanish Town, a history that includes protests a decade ago when he razed the centuries-old Ice House on Main Street.
“This isn’t about the tree, it’s about the entire Historic Preservation Commission process,” Preis said. “This has turned personal and I hope the council will review the process.”
Bennett denied any personal bias in the commission’s decision.
“The commission has no vendetta against any one party,” she said, adding that Preis made personal comments about her after her organization came out against the demolition of the Ice House. “If anyone made it personal, Richard Preis made it personal.”