Suburban Oklahoma City Councilmen David Greenwell and Mark Stonecipher may have been trying to lessen the power of two commissions Tuesday, but, to some, they appear to be engaging in a power grab.
The two council members shoved through proposed amendments to the city’s historic preservation code and raised alarm bells for at least one neighborhood currently protected by historic preservation zoning.
Tuesday, Stonecipher and Greenwell re-submitted proposals from this summer to make initiation of the historic preservation designation process an exclusive right of the Council.
Current city code allows the Historic Preservation Commission and the Planning Commission to initiate proceedings along with the Council.
The two council members seemed frustrated that the Planning Commission deferred the proposals until March 2020, when an overall PreserveOKC plan is completed.
The commission wants to consider the ideas of Greenwell and Stonecipher as a part of developing the overall plan.
In response, Stonecipher and Greenwell added a strict timetable to their July proposals and resubmitted them Tuesday. The timetable calls for the multiple-hearing process to proceed in a way that would allow a final vote of the Council on October 22.
The apparent rush was met with strong concerns by some in the public and on the Council.
Opponents recalled the rush this summer to override the HP Commission process and allow the sale of First Christian before any hearings could be held in the normal process of considering a property for historic landmark designation.
Brian Davis made public comments on behalf of the Crown Heights Neighborhood Association, in Ward 2. Crown Heights homes share property lines with the First Christian property.
The association is still angry that the Council did not allow the HP process to run its course in the summer.
“We are, to be frank, uneasy about how quickly this follows on the heels of the council’s decision previously to suspend landmark designation proceedings on First Christian Church, removing, as it did, opportunities for our community to be fully heard on that matter,” said Davis.
“…there was a well-defined process in place for decades, which the council, in its wisdom, chose to circumvent without consultation or prior warning and our association considers that action to be regrettable.”
Another voice during comments was from Judy Federa also in the Crown Heights neighborhood.
“…I perceive a very strong threat to my neighborhood coming from this proposal,” said Federa forcefully. “It threatens my financial security, my financial investment in my home. It threatens to destroy my neighborhood, and it threatens to damage my city government.”
Crown Heights is one of seven Historic Preservation Districts currently designated by the City.
The others are Edgemere Park, Jefferson Park, Mesta Park/Heritage Hills/Heritage Hills East, Paseo, Putnam Heights, and Shepherd.
All seven are within Wards 2 or 6.
Ward 6 Councilwoman JoBeth Hamon, Ward 2 Councilman James Cooper, and Ward 7 Councilwoman Nikki Nice all expressed concern that the Planning Commission did respond in the process of considering the proposals from summer and that should be respected.
The proposals are designed to take away the ability of the Historic Preservation Commission and the Planning Commission to initiate a process of designating a landmark or district for preservation unless over 50% of the owners demand it.
Those commissions are populated by architects, engineers and other highly-trained specialists in historic preservation.
Instead, Greenwell and Stonecipher propose that the City Council itself be the sole city entity that initiates the process of giving historic preservation protections.
One of the reasons for the distrust is that the language in the documents provided on Tuesday’s agenda only showed the paragraphs to be changed.
In that form, it appeared that, if passed, the Council would have the ability to just wipe away landmark or historic preservation district status and not allow for the careful consideration in place at present.
But, those two paragraphs exist within a larger framework of the rest of the code in that section (§ 59-7250) that will still call for the Historic Preservation Commission and the Planning Commissions to be involved in the process of notifications and hearings after initiation as is the case now.
The difference is in what parts of city government are allowed to initiate the proposals.
As illustrated this summer, the City Council has always had the power to override the process of the HP and Planning Commissions.
The concerns from this summer may be valid ones, but they seem to be generated more by the current decision process of five members on the Council that represent the suburbs.
The proposal was passed on to the review process with a 5-4 vote of the Council Tuesday even in the face of objections by Mayor David Holt.
Holt joined the three other council members who represent the urban core in voting against the proposals.
James Cooper from Ward 2, JoBeth Hamon from Ward 6, and Nikki Nice from Ward 7 all raised serious concerns about the proposals before their vote against it.
The Mayor raised concerns about the language of the current proposals before the vote and warned that he was going to vote against the proposals as they were.
But, that didn’t stop the five suburban council members from voting for the proposals.
James Greiner from Ward 1, Larry McAtee from Ward 3, and Todd Stone form Ward 4, joined David Greenwell from Ward 5, and Mark Stonecipher from Ward 8 in pushing the measure through.
Since the idea was first introduced at the July 3 Council meeting, Stonecipher and Greenwell have focused their attention on the situation of the First Christian Church congregation’s attempts to sell their property at NW 36th and N. Walker to a mystery party.
In the spring the Historic Preservation Commission initiated the process for protections on the property which automatically set in motion a 180-day moratorium on any sale.
But, Greenwell and Stonecipher have suggested that what happened then was a sign of a dangerous situation that could land the City in federal court under the Fifth Amendment “taking” clause if too many city entities are in the mix of deciding historic preservation status.
They also argued that the expense of hiring legal counsel to move the proposal through the HP process and then the council would be prohibitive to property owners.
Free Press interviewed a reluctant Janis Powers who is the chair of the Planning Commission at the center of the debate over timing.
We asked about the PreserveOKC plan and where that came from.
She said the city staff assigned to the Planning Commission were asked to “… give us a platform, a method, a structure, with which we could try to decide … what’s working well, what’s not. We gotta go about doing things differently, how we approach this or that.”
Powers told us that some of the sensed need for a larger PreserveOKC plan was situations like “the destruction of Stage Center.”
Stage Center was originally the last home of the Mummers Theater and was destroyed in 2014 to make room for a new OG&E headquarters building that was to be built soon after. The office building has yet to be built.
“When these things come up, they always come up in crisis mode,” said Powers. “The most recent crisis mode, of course, being when I still think of as the egg — the First Christian Church.”
We asked her about the Urban Design Committee which was where the request to wait until March 2020 originated.
“So, our UDC committee voted that rather than take action on the current proposed ordinance to limit … who has the ability to initiate one of these applications — whether to act on that … in a vacuum or on its own — we thought it should be considered as part of, and in the context of, this larger process,” Powers said.
She said in looking back, instead of deferring it they should have advised the Council “not to act on it until you can do it in the context of this larger process.”
Since property rights of an individual or individual corporation were of such large concern to Greenwell, the response from some was that the community has rights and the other property owners in the area have rights, too.
“You know, I understand the concept of property rights, which Councilman Greenwell is really big on,” said Brian Davis to gathered media afterward. “But I think that property rights have to be balanced with the rights of the community.”
The concept of community rights was brought up by Ward 6 Councilwoman JoBeth Hamon in an interview with Free Press after the Council meeting Tuesday.
“I mean, we have zoning, we have planning, that’s all about putting restrictions on what private property owners can do,” said Hamon. “And that’s an agreement that we socially agree to with the community.”
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