Put teeth in historic district ordinance

December 1, 2016

Rochester City Council members grappling with how to proceed with finalizing a list of potentially historic homes in the city should move ahead with the process as prescribed by the city's historic district ordinance, which was passed in 2014.

The purpose of a historic district ordinance is to protect the heritage of a community by preserving areas in the city that reflect its history, architecture and culture. Such ordinances also serve to stabilize and improve property values and educate the public about its local history. Such ordinances are able to do so by requiring property owners to adhere to certain standards, usually those set forth by the state's Historic Preservation Office, which basically recommends maintaining a property so it reflects its historical significance.

In a community such as Rochester, where historical significance is part of the community's character and draw, implementing a strong historic district ordinance is essential to the city's identity.

City council in 2014 was wise to pass a historic district ordinance that allows the owners of properties recognized as having historical significance to opt in to a historic district. The process gives property owners a clear understanding of what they can expect in terms of improvements, maintenance and future uses of their properties. However, the ordinance also has an established process for how to handle properties with historical significance when property owners don't voluntarily opt into a district.

Under the city's ordinance, the city's historic district study committee also is required to look at properties of historical significance that aren't included in the city's historic district. The city's historic district study committee recently identified 12 such properties, which are considered Rochester Historic Landmark Properties. Inclusion on the list means the city may take action if any of the properties are threatened in any manner, whether by actions of the owner, demolition or neglect. That action may require a public hearing to include the potential property into one of the city's established historic districts.

On Monday, November 14, five landmark property owners objected to their homes being included on the list. Council members tabled the matter until January, when the owners will have the opportunity to present evidence as to why their homes shouldn't be included on the list.

We recommend council members uphold the spirit of the city's ordinance by making their decision based on historically significance evidence, rather than emotional appeals based on fear, misunderstanding – or economics.

Based on public comments, some of those opposed to the designation expressed fears of being strong-armed into conforming their properties to special standards. However, we point out that inclusion on the landmark list isn't the same as being included in a historic district. The landmark list does not mandate conformity to historic preservation, but encourages it so owners do not destroy the property through demolition or neglect. 

While it's understandable that property owners don't want anyone micromanaging their property, to maintain the heritage of the community, it is imperative that Rochester's rich history be preserved. We encourage both city council members and property owners of such landmark properties ­continue following the process set forth in the city's historic district ordinance, which looks at the bigger picture of the city, rather than each individual's personal agenda.

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