The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

November 30, 2009

Residents want veto of historic commission amendment

By Karen Middleton

About a half-dozen residents of the city’s historical districts met with Athens Mayor Dan Williams Monday to ask him to veto an amendment to the city’s historical district ordinance.

On Nov. 23, the City Council voted 3-to-2 to approve an amendment to the ordinance that would give the city the option of a becoming a Certified Local Government with the ability to designate for nomination certain buildings to the National Register of Historic Places. Officials say the designation would allow the city to apply for restoration grants for buildings around the square and elsewhere.

Councilmen Harold Wales and Jimmy Gill, who voted against the measure, say they had received numerous emails and phone calls from residents protesting the amendment.

Over the Thanksgiving weekend some of those who oppose the amendment hit the streets in the Beaty and Houston historic districts to gather signatures on a petition asking the mayor to veto the amendment. They collected 124 signatures, which Williams acknowledged was a large percentage of historic district residents.

“It’s a separate issue from a historic district,” said Carlene Freehauf of the Beaty District. “That (the amendment) is for buildings on the square, and historic districts are private homes.”

Bobbie Patton, also a Beaty District resident, said the auspices under which the historic districts and the commissions which oversee them were organized was the Alabama Register of Landmarks & Heritage of 1982.

“But in 2001 they added more restrictions,” said Patton. “Now you have to have permission to make restorations and permission to cut a tree.”

Robert Baker said he is opposed to such “vague” terminology in the city’s ordinance as “aesthetically pleasing.”

“It’s not definitive,” said Baker. “It’s left up to the commission if something is ‘aesthetically pleasing’ and not the owner. It also bothers me that the commission can write in rules and restrictions after it’s been passed.”

Beaty District resident Ralph Freehauf agreed with Baker that the entire ordinance is too vague in the restrictions that have been added.

“If we’re to have guidelines, we need to have them spelled out,” said Freehauf.

Freehauf also said he doubts that the Historic Preservation Commission takes input from residents seriously.

“We attended a commission meeting and spoke for two and a half hours, but the commission had already made up their minds and sent it on to the council, and they voted on it Nov. 23,” said Freehauf. “We were under the impression it had to be advertised in the paper first.”

Bert Nelson said the amendment setting up the CLG was contradictory along with being vague. He pointed out a section which states that in order to become certified, city officials must attend educational courses.

“But then it goes on to say the classes are not a requirement,” said Nelson.

Nelson said the old historic district ordinance was inconsistent, but residents found it easier to live with than the amended one.

“As long as someone doesn’t destroy history, we can live with that,” said Nelson. “If someone wants to paint their house purple or pink, we can live with that too because that can always be painted over.”

The mayor said that the commission could not write in rules or regulations that were not consistent with the ordinance and that any changes in the ordinance would have to come to the council for approval.

Williams said that when the city first set up historic districts, many people wanted their homes included in the belief that it would increase property values. He said the council redrew district lines to allow more people in. But once in, some property owners did not like the rules and regulations and wanted out.

The mayor told the group that if he vetoed the changes to the ordinance “We’ll be back to square one.”

After the meeting, Williams said he would have to rethink the issue.

“I am concerned that that many people signed the petition,” said Williams.

I don’t really want to veto anything. I was under the impression that we had gotten everything objectionable out.

“They would rather me veto it and go back to the old ordinance, although they weren’t happy with that either. If I do veto it, it will have to be within the next few days. I would have to notify the city clerk who would have to carry it to the council at the next meeting.

The next meeting of the City Council is Dec. 14.