January 23, 2013 10:27:27 AM
Both sides of the Starkville Historic District debate were present and vocal during Tuesday's public hearing held by the Starkville Historic Preservation Commission.
The commission, established in 2010, has proposed three local historic districts, along with mandatory standards and requirements for restoration and rehabilitation of properties within those districts. The commission will present the proposals to the Starkville Board of Aldermen at board's Feb. 5 meeting.
Proponents of the proposal say the creation of districts will provide for more uniform, period-appropriate development,while those opposed pointed to an encroachment on property owners' rights, and said the standards should remain strictly advisory.
Before allowing citizens a chance to comment on the matter, commission chair Michael Fazio briefed the audience on the difference between districts on the National Register of Historic Places and local historic districts. He also explained how the commission came to decide on the boundaries and locations of the three proposed local districts.
There are currently four districts in Starkville on the National Register of Historic Places: Nash Street, Downtown, Greensboro and Overstreet.
As far as the National Register is concerned, Fazio said requirements and standards for what property owners can do are virtually non-existent, but that there are some enormous tax credits. A 20 percent federal preservation tax credit is available for property owners looking to rehabilitate a structure in these nationally-recognized districts. In Mississippi, property owners are offered a 25-percent state credit on top of the federal credit.
In the local historic districts, major changes to property would need to be approved by HPC, and a Certificate of Appropriateness (COA) granted to the property owner.
The three local districts would include roughly the same area as the districts on the National Register of Historic Places, minus the Downtown District. The HPC's focus is on the residential side, according to Fazio.
The standards and requirements proposed by HPC are included in a 140-page document. Fazio said the document also includes an appendix, history of architecture in Starkville and preliminary information, such as the COA process.
To be granted a COA for a rehabilitation project, property owners in the three districts would need to obtain a one-page, front and back, form from the city's planning department.
Fazio said the "simple form," would consist of only a few things: instructions on how to fill it out, pertinent personal information (name, address, etc.), project type ( such as a demolition or a rehabilitation) and the category the project falls into (roof, windows, walls, etc.)
"And anyone that wants to make changes, the first thing to do is to call the city planning office and ask about the changes and they will be more than willing to sit down and talk with you and help you through the process," Fazio said. "I can assure you the commission spent a lot of time to make that as simple as possible."
Tom Carskadon, a Greensboro Street resident for 40 years, was the first to address the commission. Carskadon briefly acknowledged the commission's good intentions and effort, but sternly objected to residential rehabilitation standards being compulsory. He said he felt the commission was acting purely on aesthetic grounds and that the standards were not addressing any governmental issue.
"What is the compelling governmental interest? What problem are we trying to solve?" Carskadon asked the commission. "To reach the point of telling homeowners what their front doors can look like really sounds extreme for socialist Scandinavia let alone little old Starkville, Mississippi."
Aesthetics is exactly what the HPC is concerned with, Fazio said, and that the aesthetics that local historic district often add to a neighborhood can have big benefits.
"Property in local districts have higher values on average than non-designated neighborhoods," Fazio said. "And they have been shown to increase neighborhood cohesiveness."
Fazio added that the second part is hard to measure, but something he believes in whole-heartedly, based on his research.
Robert McMillan who lives on Jackson Street in the Overstreet District, was optimistic about the requirements that will keep developers from putting in duplexes that don't fit the aesthetic mesh of his neighborhood.
Fazio said that a local district standards could help in that effort, but that it would take an entire administration dedicated to excellent housing ideals to really fix what is mostly a zoning issue.
"You have to have a city where that is one of the goals," he said. "Through a number of means we have to improve the status of housing, but once you have a local district, forces outside with intentions not as pure as yours, will say, maybe there are easier pickings somewhere else."