State and island historical preservation advocates are worried about the effect a bill being considered by the Texas House of Representatives might have on their ability of save properties from demolition.

Texas House Bill 3418, written by Rep. Gary Elkins, a Houston Republican, would place limits on who can declare a property as historic, and worthy of protection, and restricts the designation to places that are “widely recognized” as historic.

The bill caught the attention of island preservationists. Galveston is home to one of the largest and most historically significant collections of 19th-century buildings in the United States.

Elkins said the bill was written in response to the trend of “historizing,” the act of declaring a building historically important, despite a questionable claim, with the actual aim of blocking new construction.

“I have heard several horror stories about the zoning process while property owners are held hostage for several months, if not years, while the city decides if it is historic,” Elkins said during a hearing of the House’s Urban Affairs Committee on Tuesday.

He specifically pointed to a situation that he knew of in Austin — involving a property owned by former state Rep. Burt Solomons — as inspiration for his bill.

Solomons told the committee that Austin’s Historic Landmark Commission moved to block the demolition of an early 20th century home he owned by designating it a landmark. The commission dropped its plans after he withdrew the application for demolition, he said.

Elkins’ bill drew condemnation from historical preservation advocates, who said it undermined local authority in making zoning decisions.

“It introduces ill-defined terms into criteria standards that currently have established meanings and parameters gleaned after years of application and legal interpretation,” said Kate Singleton, executive director of Preservation Austin. “It appears to be based on outdated notions of preservation.”

Most cities that are serious about historic preservation conduct extensive research into a property before declaring it historic, Singleton said. Sometimes, that research uncovers history that is not widely recognized, but is important, Singleton said.

Dwayne Jones, the executive director of the Galveston Historical Foundation, on Wednesday said different cities approach historical preservation differently. He said Elkins’ bill failed to recognize that.

“It generically assumes that these are issues across all Texas municipalities,” Jones said. “They are not. Those of us in communities large and small that have landmark commissions and preservation programs are very concerned that he’s trying to fix a unique problem in the city of Austin that will affect all of us.”

Jones wasn’t aware of any situations in Galveston that were similar to the one Elkins and Solomons described as happening in Austin, he said.

While the foundation maintains a list of properties it defines as historic and deserving of preservation, it’s up to property owners to apply for a historic designation. After a property is declared historic, renovations to its exterior must be approved by the city, and judged to be in line with the city’s historic preservation guidelines.

The bill was left pending in the committee. Jones said he hoped to work with Elkins to rewrite the bill so that it would have less far-reaching effects than the current legislation would.

John Wayne Ferguson: 409-683-5226; john.ferguson@galvnews.com or on Twitter @johnwferguson.

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(4) comments

Mark Stevens

Rep. Elkins' bill should pass, quickly. I have often said that if you buy a home in an "historic" neighborhood in Galveston, you might need a lawyer just to swing a hammer. That's not right. Galveston in particular is a tangle of wordy but vague regulations, administered by good intentioned people who don't seem to know the limits of their supposed authority and who don't care how much money an owner has to lay out to "preserve" a building that is not historic, but just OLD and past its useful life.
Mark W. Stevens

Erin Brucia

I agree with you 100%. We are held to historic guidelines, yet our house is only 12 years old, because we are zoned to a historic district in the city. Houses on the same street that are several decades older than ours are not considered historic because of the arbitrary lines someone chose to draw on a map when the historic district was created. I agree the regulations have good intentions, but they go too far sometimes.

Mary Branum

Austin's problems have become the focus of multiple Bills in this legislature thus affecting the entire State,. Austin couldn't come up with a reasonable ordinance for STR's -SB451 and HB2551, Uber is not happy with Austin's ban SB361 and now historical buildings. Seems to me that Austin has problems with their own with residents and City officials not able to reach a common ground. The State government should stay out of it. Every conversation over the last two months has commenced with " Well, Austin....."! Apparently the City of Austin has a problem and is forcing their issues to a State level as they can't handle them locally.

Jack Reeves

I love Galveston and I love the efforts and intentions of those folks who spend countless hours, trying to make sure that we don't lose our heritage and all of the things that make The Island unique. Think what would have happened to Star State #3 without the GHF! (I think it should be a fire museum) BUT, I do agree that their well meaning efforts can, at times, be misguided or overzealous. I have a relative who has a modern house in an area which is designated as "historic". Because of that designation, she was denied permission to erect a residential cyclone fence. I can't think of one place on Galveston that couldn't have some historical value but, when the city allowed new "modern" homes to be built in these areas, they should not now allow any other entity to place restrictions on the newer structure, so long as the homeowner is maintaining the residence in such a way as to minimize the negative impact on the appearance of nearby vintage homes.
Look at the gentleman who recently replaced the door on his historic home and received sanctions from The GHF. While the door was appropriate for the age of the house, it wasn't "THE" door. Common sense should prevail. I sometimes feel that power corrupts people who have never had any. I was a cop and making people mad gets old really fast.

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