EBR Historic Preservation Commission gets mixed reviews

For Baton Rouge residents who live in the historic districts of Spanish Town and Drehr Place in the Garden District, decisions like changing your door, cutting down a tree or putting up a fence are not their decisions alone to make.

Something as simple as changing an outdoor light fixture requires a permit from the parish Historic Preservation Commission to ensure the changes are consistent with the historic nature of the area.

The permit, called a Certificate of Appropriateness, costs up to $200.

In recent weeks the commission has come under fire as critics, led by Metro Councilman Ryan Heck, question the scope of its authority.

Heck is proposing a one-year moratorium of the commission’s ability to authorize the COAs while the agency is reviewed.

Although commission members expressed disbelief during a meeting Thursday that any residents living in the districts had grievances with the neighborhood guidelines, it’s clear not everyone is happy with the commission’s rules.

Larry Firmin, who lives in Drehr Place, said he and many of his neighbors would like the historical designation to be rescinded because it “proved to be an albatross around our necks.”

Firman said Drehr Place residents are leery of paying the sometimes $200 COA fee, then having to wait four to six weeks for a bureaucratic approval or denial of the change.

“I have a real issue with anybody, the government or anyone, telling me what I do with my own property, as long as I am not offending my neighbors,” he said.

The guidelines ensure changes and new construction are consistent with a neighborhood’s historical look and feel, according to Carolyn Bennett, chairwoma of the preservation commission.

Neighborhoods such as Southdowns and Capitol Heights have had new construction built out of scale and out of character with the rest of the street, she said.

“If those neighborhoods were under the HPC, then you would have a way to discuss with your property owner that their house is really going to dwarf the one next to you, or you’re going to cast a shadow on your neighbor,” she said. “You have a way to discuss what is being built in these older neighborhoods.”

She said protections for historic neighborhoods are best enforced at the local level.

The Garden District Civic Association president, Ray Mack, said he didn’t want to offer his personal opinion, but speculated Garden District residents are split in how they perceive the role of the preservation commission.

He said a few years ago, there was a proposal to give Roseland Terrace, another Garden District neighborhood, a local historical designation like Drehr Place and Spanish Town.

The designation would have subjected the property owners to the same conditions requiring approvals from the commission before renovating or making aesthetic changes to their homes.

Mack and a group of others surveyed the homeowners at the time, finding more than half of those surveyed did not want to be part of a historic district.

The Metro Council ultimately rejected that historical designation.

“So I think it’s a pretty good assumption that feelings in the Garden District and mostly in Drehr Place run both ways,” he said.

Roseland Terrace, like Beauregard Town and some other neighborhoods, are on the National Register of Historic Places and are eligible to be locally designated as historic neighborhoods protected by the rules of the Historic Preservation Commission.

Bennett acknowledged the other neighborhoods have shown little interest.

“Whether they’re fearful or whether they don’t want the intervention, sometimes when you have these things there’s a very vocal minority that comes forward and doesn’t want it,” Bennett said.

In Spanish Town, resident Michael Beck said he filed a COA with the preservation commission to remove a tree and was approved.

“I found the process convenient, and I found the commission reasonable and accommodating,” Beck said, adding he wonders how many people who complain about the process have ever been through it.

Heck’s resolution proposes to give control of COAs to the Planning Commission.

Another Spanish Town resident, Darryl Gissel, said the rules that property owners must adhere to came from the community.

“The guidelines were advertised; there was public notice and public meetings,” Gissel said. “This isn’t something just one or two people wrote. It was a community process.

“As a residential property owner, I would be gravely concerned if we gave our guidelines over to the Planning Commission and had them decide what the neighborhood wants.”

Richard Preis, a developer and Spanish Town land owner, has drawn the ire of many Spanish Town residents and the preservation commission after demolishing the former Ice House building downtown and entering into a purchase agreement with a developer who unsuccessfully attempted to build apartments in Spanish Town.

Most recently, Preis, without getting a COA, removed a water oak in Spanish Town that had been hit by lightning. He was fined by the commission only to have the fine rescinded by the Metro Council.

Preis also said he thinks the Preservation Commission’s decision-making authority should be given to the Planning Commission.

“People like me who are land owners want to improve areas,” Preis said, “but the HPC has scared everybody off because they’re so difficult to deal with.”

Editor’s note: This story was modified on Oct. 7, 2013, to remove from the story a statement that the color of homes in historic districts is one of the things governed by the parish Historic Preservation Commission. It is not. The Advocate regrets the error.