Denton’s oldest buildings will be up for new discussions at City Hall, where city leaders will begin tackling historic preservation issues in the coming months.
The city’s Historic Landmark Commission has been hit with a string of controversial issues that include home renovations and solar panels in historic districts, the razing of several historic buildings in recent years and the city’s own waffling about whether to seek landmark status for the old City Hall West after a developer expressed interest in buying it.
Now the City Council has agreed to appoint an ad hoc council committee to address the issues, although the council says it will wait until after the May 10 election to put the group together. The council agreed to the move Tuesday after hearing a report from council member Kevin Roden, who visited with the Historic Landmark Commission on Monday to propose the ad hoc committee.
Roden told the council that there has been concern for some time that the commission doesn’t have the right tools in place to do its job, pointing to the city’s most recent loss — the demolition on April 10 of the former Fire Station No. 3.
Owners of commercial or public buildings that have been designated as landmarks or houses in historic districts must go before the commission if they are contemplating significant changes to the structures.
The commission reviews the work and, when assured it is appropriate, issues a certificate for it. The extra rules for historic buildings and districts are meant to preserve their architectural integrity, a concept that itself has triggered controversy locally.
As the council learned Tuesday, they have not appointed a registered architect to serve on the commission, a requirement of its enabling ordinance, in about a decade.
The city staff has been meeting with residents and conducting online polling after the City Council overruled the commission and allowed a homeowner in the West Oak Historic District to install solar panels that will be visible from the street — not often allowed by historic districts in other cities and states.
Another dispute has centered on a home in the 700 block of West Oak Street in the Oak-Hickory Historic District. The homeowners applied for a certificate to renovate the home, a process that took about six months, according to owner Jeff Palla.
The plans called for turning a one-story addition into a two-story extension, but neighbors began protesting as the back of the house and the roof were demolished.
Helen Reikofski was among the two dozen or so residents who managed to make it to a neighborhood meeting at City Hall during the middle of the April 3 hailstorms.
She said residents told the city staff they were surprised at the scope of the work and questioned why they weren’t notified.
Annetta Ramsay and Randy Hunt, who live next door, said they gathered up scores of city documents after the work began, trying to educate themselves and their neighbors about what was happening and how it got approved.
The lack of communication with neighbors concerned commissioners, who told the staff they depend on neighborhood feedback to do their work.
And legal wrangling continues over the renovations of a home in the Bell Avenue Conservation District, as the owners failed to secure certificates for all the work that was done.
A contractor initially pledged to restore the home, but the owners were back before the commission Monday with their attorney, Richard Hayes, asking again for the certificates. They face six Class C citations, four of which were for alterations to the home’s porch, chimney, windows and foundation vents, and each could carry up to a $500 fine.
Several other historic homes and buildings have been demolished in recent years.
Texas Woman’s University voted to demolish University House last year, even though it was eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places.
The former fire station on Avenue B was not designated as a landmark before the city sold it to a private owner. The building was torn down, along with a former restaurant building, to make way for a new pharmacy.
A historic home on East Oak Street was razed after the city of Denton acquired most of that block, which includes the former county tax office, from Denton County.
And a Houston developer bought properties along Fry Street in 2006 with plans to redevelop the area. Despite a public outcry to save the historic buildings, the developer demolished them in the summer of 2007.
Roden’s proposal to the council was met with both optimism and skepticism by commissioners.
Commissioner Peggy Riddle reminded Roden on Monday that the city has not made a building or neighborhood a landmark in years.
She said the city needs to update its historic preservation plan, which has not really been revisited since 1986.
Riddle, who also serves as director of the Denton County Office of History and Culture, and fellow commissioners Scott Campbell and Alyssa Stephenson helped inventory historic buildings downtown that could be better protected by an historic overlay.
One of the last photos they took, Campbell said, was of a 110-year-old commercial building on Austin Street that was demolished earlier this year to make way for a food truck park.
Even though the Square is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, those buildings could be threatened, too.
Changes to some buildings on the Square restored their historic integrity, but others were changed enough that they could no longer be listed as “contributing” to the Square’s historic status.
Generally, the National Register prefers that more than 50 percent of the buildings in a district be contributing; just 26 of Denton’s fit that description.
Roden told fellow council members that conditions are different now than they were in 1986 when the city first drew up its historic preservation plans, and he hoped the ad hoc committee would be able to get issues addressed more quickly.
PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881 and via Twitter at @phwolfeDRC.