Gretna struggles with rules to prevent neglect of historic properties

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Gretna officials are looking at changes to the city's 'neglect of structure' ordinance, which regulates the maintenance of buildings, particularly in the historic district. The ordinance allows the city to come in and do mediation to historic homes to reduce damage and then charge the homeowners. This property at 636 Lafayette Street was discussed as an example of the problem Monday. Show caption
Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Gretna officials are looking at changes to the city's 'neglect of structure' ordinance, which regulates the maintenance of buildings, particularly in the historic district. The ordinance allows the city to come in and do mediation to historic homes to reduce damage and then charge the homeowners. This property at 636 Lafayette Street was discussed as an example of the problem Monday.

Gretna officials struggle with complexity of ordinance

“I know we’re trying to do the right thing;  I can’t figure out how to get there from here.  To make it to be a Pollyanna type of community is just not going to happen.  Nobody’s got the resources.” Ronnie harris, Gretna mayor

Gretna politicians are finding that a new system they created to prevent the intentional neglect of the city’s historic homes has created its own set of problems.

Gretna City Council members and Mayor Ronnie Harris are wracking their brains to figure out how to fix the city’s “neglect of structure” process for historic homes.

That process was created in 2010 to give the city the ability to salvage historic properties that had been left to rot.

Often homes were being neglected because property owners couldn’t get permission from the city’s Historic District Advisory Committee to make certain types of renovations or to demolish the structures.

The city’s ordinance allows the council to easily cite property owners to force charges or in extreme cases make improvements on the city’s dime.

Councilwoman Belinda Constant, whose district includes the historic area, pushed for the new rules and hailed them as a solution to a massive problem. The demolition of historic homes by neglect jeopardized the historic district’s place on the national register and allowed some people to skirt rules that others followed.

But the solution has created another headache. Harris said the city is going to need to take a hard look at the guidelines in the near future.

“This issue is a lot more complicated than meets the eye,” Harris said. “The devil (is) in the details as to how we’re going to approach it.”

Council members expressed concern about the ordinance last week, particularly about how city officials determined which homes to target, and whether there was enough collaboration between the city and public.

Under the ordinance, city inspectors identify neglected property through their own inspections or complaints and then make a presentation to the Historic District Advisory Committee. That committee forwards its ruling to the council.

Councilman Vincent Cox said some of the homes presented to the council don’t seem seriously neglected. There may be some cosmetic issues, but they don’t appear to be in danger of being destroyed.

Councilman Wayne Rau wondered why the city doesn’t have more definite standards about what constitutes true neglect. Cox also questioned why inspectors make a recommendation to the committee instead of coming directly to the council.

“We’re all learning this process as we go along, it seems,” Cox said.

Constant said she doesn’t understand why homeowners who are interested in repairs can’t avoid both boards. She thinks the city administration should use more discretion in deciding which homes to target.

“Rehabilitation of homes is very expensive, particularly of older homes” Constant said. “There are a lot of older homes in the city. … Obviously it’s standing there because they don’t want to tear it down.’’

But the city created a regimented process because the previous ordinance lacked the structure to make real changes, City Attorney Mark Morgan noted.

When Morgan drafted the new rules, he tried to focus the city’s attention on whether a home was in danger of deteriorating if problems weren’t corrected. He included the HDAC in the process because that protected the city from future litigation by including more opinions. Asking the administration to go further in screening the homes could create more problems, he said.

“What you would be doing is asking the administration to go outside of the authority they’ve been given under the code,” Morgan said. “When this problem first came up, there was nothing in the book that we could do.”

Danika Gorrondona, the city’s building inspector, said Gretna’s first option is always to work with homeowners.

Last week, the council worked out a repair plan with the owner of a property at 636 Lafayette Street that had been dilapidated for more than 15 years, according to city officials.

The city starts the neglect of structure process because it forces property owners to act.

Harris said the real problem is a lack of resources to make some of these changes. Some property owners don’t have the money, and the city doesn’t really have the money to step in and correct every problem.

Harris said he sees the neglect of structure ordinance as something that should be used in emergencies, not to encourage regular maintenance.

“I know we’re trying to do the right thing; I can’t figure out how to get there from here,” Harris told the board. “To make it to be a Pollyanna type of community is just not going to happen. Nobody’s got the resources.”