Council passes historic preservation ordinance

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County > Efforts to preserve the past have been years in the making

By Arin McKenna

Los Alamos now has a process for designating and protecting historically significant properties, thanks to a historic preservation ordinance approved by county council Tuesday.

The ordinance does not create any specific historic districts or historic sites or contain any specific design standards governing control of activities in historic districts.

Instead, it “outlines the application process for historical designation and alterations of historically designated property, ensures appropriate review and control of architectural and contextual compatibility within the district and establishes approval procedures using existing administrative systems.”

“This establishes a process that allows the county council to regulate historic assets,” said County Associate Planner Dan Osborn.

“Another piece of this that we’re excited about is that this is a voluntary program. It has an application process that the property owner will be able to bring forward if they are requesting historic designation and design standards for their property.

“Then we can offer them a set of additional assets through the historic preservation office at the state level as well as some expertise and guidance through our review boards.”

Those interested in creating a district will have to provide an outside assessment of the historic value of properties in the proposed district. The ordinance contains review criteria for determining whether the district has a valid historic context.

The ordinance also provides a mechanism for protecting properties from demolition pending a review and hearing regarding possible historic preservation designation.

The county can make application for areas under its jurisdiction, such as historic wagon roads.

“This also strengthens and clarifies the language for preservation, protection and enhancement for those assets within the county, defines those assets and establishes that cooperative framework for protection through those districts,” Osborn said.

The proposed changes also allow the National Park Service to designate the county a Certified Local Government. The certification enables the county to request expert technical advice from the National Park Service and enables partnerships with the National Alliance of Preservation Commissions, Preserve America, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the National Main Street Center and provides access to Federal grant funds specifically set aside by each State’s Historical Preservation Office.

Osborn noted that one group of homeowners has already expressed interest in the historic designation. Vice Chair David Izraelevitz asked what would motivate property owners to request the designation.

“Generally it would be something they would want to do as a civic duty, activism for a piece of history that they would personally like to preserve,” Osborn replied. “There could be some financial gains for them in terms of the value of the property if it were designated as historic and retained that tie to history. Generally it’s something they want to do because it’s something they believe in and see value in.”

Councilor Kristin Henderson questioned why the ordinance applies only to exterior features. “Many of these houses may be used as primary residences, and in other historic ordinances that we’ve reviewed, typically you wouldn’t want to saddle them with a bathroom remodel that would require them to have the older plumbing and fixtures.

They would be able to modernize a kitchen, for instance,” Osborn said. “The ordinances that I have worked with typically do not incorporate the interior modifications for that reason.”

Osborn was asked if Los Alamos had any historic districts at this time. He replied that some property owners have achieved designation on the State Register of Cultural Properties or the National Register of Historic Places.

“That is not a land use function the county administers or has any enforcement power over. Historic preservation at that level is completely voluntary. You choose to participate of your own volition and you can opt out. There are no enforcement powers, there is no other remediation. You can choose to be a part of it or you can choose to tear down the next day,” Osborn said.

“That’s the part that we’re trying to remedy through this overlay district. We would actually have some enforcement powers and some preservation powers through the application process if property owners desire to participate.”
The ordinance requires two-thirds of the property owners within the proposed district to approve the overlay. Councilor Rick Reiss asked what would happen if an owner within the proposed district was not in favor.

“There is some thinking that you might want to insure that you get the entire district included, but we also have the safeguards in so that if a property owner were opposed to it, we have mechanisms through the review process to effectively let them opt out of that,” Osborn replied.

Those objecting would have opportunities to protest during hearings with the Fuller Lodge Historic Districts Advisory Board, the Community and Economic Development Department Inter Departmental Review Committee, the Planning and Zoning commission and before council.

“So there would be multiple opportunities for that to be debated and discussed within the public hearing process and hopefully get to a resolution that is appropriate for the district,” Osborn said. “It would ultimately be this body that would include or exclude any property owner that had concerns on inclusion within the district. It does fall effectively to the zoning powers of this body.”

Council approved the ordinance by a 6–0 vote. Councilor Frances Berting was attending an Energy Community Alliance meeting.