Town hall meeting draws state preservationist

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Paul Minze’s quest to dismantle the Historic District Commission came up against state law at Sunday’s town hall meeting. Minze has repeatedly claimed that the city would still have a protected historic district after disbanding the HDC.

Mayor Butch Berry called the meeting to address issues raised by a ballot initiative spearheaded by Minze that would eliminate the HDC, which has regulated changes to building exteriors since 1978.

Minze had come before the HDC in 2015 with an application for repairs to a house at 35 Mountain St. The HDC approved most of the work but rejected a request to move a window on the primary façade. Minze had the opportunity at that time to appeal the HDC’s decision to circuit court but ignored the HDC ruling and moved the window anyway.

When the city subsequently put a stop work order on the project, Minze and the HDC ended up in circuit court, where Judge Scott Jackson ruled against Minze, “The only finding this court can make is to move the window back,” he said. “You were told ‘No’ and you moved it anyway.”

Minze collected signatures to place the question on the Nov. 3 ballot. In advocating for the measure, Minze has claimed that the city will still have a historic district, and guidelines will remain in place. Anyone who feels a neighbor has violated those guidelines would have the opportunity to file a lawsuit in circuit court.

At the town hall meeting, Berry introduced Catherine Barrier, Certified Local Government Coordinator with the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program. She delivered background information on the formation and operation of HDCs. Barrier has worked in preservation across the country.

Under Arkansas law, a local HDC requires an application for all exterior work other than maintenance. The application must include enough information for commissioners to make an informed decision. The law also makes provision for notification of neighbors in case of significant changes. Commissioners can approve, reject, or defer a project, although most commissions reject very few applications. Some other states allow appeals to the Planning Commission, but in Arkansas, appeals go to circuit court.

Barrier listed some of the pros and cons of a historic district. The guidelines that restrict a property owner’s choices also regulate adjacent properties, so although someone cannot build a house which towers over other houses, that same rule protects the property owner from others. Barrier acknowledged that meeting historically appropriate standards may cost more for materials and labor, but historic districts preserve or increase property values. Tourism receipts are also higher in preserved historic places.

Alderman Melissa Greene came to the public microphone to ask about Minze’s suggestion that anyone within 300 feet of an offending project could file suit in circuit court. Barrier said there would be no guidelines in place to support such a lawsuit, even in the case of demolition.

Minze took a turn at the microphone and insisted that a city could have a historic district without a commission. When Barrier flatly refuted his suggestion, Minze quoted information he said he received in July from someone else in her office. Scott Kaufman, Director of the AHPP, was in the audience, however, and immediately objected to Minze’s claim. “I think you’re confused,” he said.

The city is listed as a historic district in the National Register, but that is an honorary designation, based on the percentage of preserved buildings. That listing does not place any restrictions on property owners. The designation was updated in 2005, in part because the city has maintained its Victorian history. Some cities use zoning to achieve some preservation goals. Those measures can set height limits, and maintain a general neighborhood scale, but they cannot prevent demolition.

Other public comments noted that people moving into Eureka Springs sometimes do not understand the requirements of a historic district. Although one recent arrival had received information about the historic district from his real estate agent, two other people said they had moved here recently and heard nothing about the district.

Berry said real estate agents are supposed to notify prospective buyers, and the city has developed a brochure to explain historic district requirements.

Some who spoke suggested retaining the commission but increasing review of guidelines and keeping up with commissioner training.

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