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 “It appears to be based on outdated notions of preservation.”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.