The ins and outs of living in a neighborhood historic district

It's not as easy as doing work in a subdivision built in a suburban prairie, but it's not supposed to be. The idea, after all, is to preserve the integrity of the neighborhood.

Sandy Stuart wanted to tear down his garage and put up a new one. He wanted space for another car, he wanted a roof that wouldn’t leak, and he wanted space for storage. But Stuart, a computer consultant who lives in the Hollywood Heights-Santa Monica Conservation District, also knew the process wasn’t going to be quite that straight-foward.

The rules for the Hollywood Conservation District limit the height of the garage, restrict the colors it can be painted, and require the garage’s style match the neighborhood’s architecture. But Stuart didn’t let the restrictions faze him.

“Yes, a lot of things came up,” says Stuart, who is also a member of the board of the Hollywood neighborhood association.

“But in the end, there was really nothing to it. We submitted the plans, and they said we could do it. The real restrictions in a conservation or historic district are not half as bad as the perceived restrictions. It’s been my experience that 95 percent of the things people want to do are approved.”

Which isn’t always the impression people have about historic and conservation districts, the two zoning designations designed to protect architecturally significant neighborhoods in Dallas. Rather, they’re often seen as limiting the rights of property owners, burdening little old ladies trying to sell their homes, and providing a bludgeon for overzealous bureaucrats and preservationists.

The reality though, is quite different, say homeowners who live in the districts and have successfully – and with a minimum of bother – renovated their houses. It’s not as easy as doing work in a subdivision built in a suburban prairie, but it’s not supposed to be. The idea, after all, is to preserve the integrity of the neighborhood.

“It’s not a bad system that we have,” says Norman Alston, an architect who chairs a historic district task force, “but it just doesn’t work right all of the time. Where you have trouble, it’s when people in the neighborhood think someone is trying to circumvent the process.”

What they are/ Residential preservation is a relatively recent development in Dallas history. The ordinance to establish historic and conservation districts (with only one formed in the past decade) and nine residential historic districts. None of the districts are outside of our neighborhood and Oak Cliff, and many aren’t that big – the Lakewood conservation district includes less than half of Lakewood, and nothing east of West Shore.

So why all of the fuss, such as last spring’s very public and very personal fight over whether former Texas secretary of state David Dean could add a closet to his home on Swiss Avenue? Or the ruckus several years ago when a homeowner in Hollywood-Santa Monica put a metal roof on her home?

“Yes, there have been some fights, with some fur flying, and some power stuff,” says Peggy Walker, an Ebby Halliday Realtor who specializes in historic properties and has completed Preservation Dallas’ course for real estate professionals.

“But that’s because everyone involved in the process is human. By and large, it’s a very smooth process that protects the neighborhoods. The very things that make everyone a little crazy protects the value of the houses in the neighborhoods.”

That detail can include anything from the kind of trees that can be planted to whether bricks can be painted to the architectural style that’s required – and, to make it even more frustrating, can vary from neighborhood to neighborhood in conservation districts. That means something permissible in Lakewood might not be in Hollywood-Santa Monica – and probably isn’t, since Hollywood-Santa Monica restrictions are more extensive.

That, in fact, is one of the two main differences between historic and conservation districts. Historic districts don’t allow for any leeway from neighborhood to neighborhood (their zoning is based on a template used throughout the country), and they’re more restrictive than conservation districts.

Yet the process for formation and enforcement is much the same, regardless of the kind of district. A consensus of area property owners (and not just residents), currently defined as 75 percent, must submit a petition to the city’s plan commission requesting that their zoning be changed to either conservation or historic, says Leif Sandberg, the city’s manager for comprehensive planning the department of planning and development.

Then, if it’s approved, the request is forwarded to the City Council, which votes on the proposal just like any other zoning change. That means public hearings, media coverage, and, sometimes, people screaming at each other.

Property owners in a conservation district devise their restrictions, with the help of City staff, after the plan commission (comprised of Dallas residents appointed by council members) agrees to hear their case but before it grants approval, Sandberg says. (Requirements already exist, as mentioned, for historic districts.) For example, current proposals for conservation districts in the M Streets and in Edgemont Park, north of the Lakewood post office, call for a ban on front-yard garages.

“What gets in the district is what property owners want,” Sandberg says. “It can be as tightly regulated as they want it to be. If they want to specify roof materials, they can. A big part of what we do is help people decide on levels of regulation.”

Interestingly, enforcement is much less formal. Property owners who want to do exterior renovation or new construction district, or a simple exterior renovation in a historic district, just need a certificate of appropriateness from the planning development before obtaining a building permit.

Historic district residents who want to do more extensive work must go through a three-step process to get their certificate – OKs from the planning department, a neighborhood task force and the city’s landmark commission. This process can be burdensome. One recent agenda for the Peak’s Suburban Addition Historic District near Baylor Hospital listed requests to install aluminum windows, move an electric meter and add a garage.

But the city doesn’t independently enforce the certificate requirement, and it’s not unusual for homeowners to do work without getting one. Enforcement, Alston says, depends on residents keeping tabs on renovation and construction, notifying the city if a property owner hasn’t received a certificate.

“Preservation is paramount because people who buy into an area do so because they like architecture,” says Bill “Bulldog” Cunningham, who represents Lakewood on the plan commission.

“If you don’t protect that, shame on you. That’s what this process is all about.”

Making adjustments/ They key to living with the restrictions, say those who do it every day, is to not only understand them, but to understand the process that went into devising the restrictions. Say Helen Karuba, a Realtor who specializes in historic properties for Keller-Williams: “The districts are there to protect the homes and to preserve property values, and that’s exactly what they’ve done.”

And that understanding must start long before a homeowner wants to paint the house or renovate it – and should even start, in some cases, before the homeowner becomes the homeowner.

“One of the biggest problems that we’ve found,” Stuart says, “is that people, for whatever reason, aren’t aware of the restrictions. It doesn’t matter whether they are new to the neighborhood or were there when the district was formed.”
Keep these six points in mind so that won’t happen:

  1. Is it a historic or conservation district? Residents can get a list of current districts from the planning department. Anyone buying a home can check the property’s multiple listing service data, which should include the information. And the street signs in districts typically include a little HD or CD on the knob at the top.
  2. Could it become a historic or conservation district, or change status? Currently, say several people familiar with residential preservation, there is interest in forming conservation districts in Greenland Hills in the M Streets, Edgemont Park, Mt. Auburn and Cochran Heights near Samuel-Grand Park, and Junius Heights, as well as upgrading Lakewood Hollywood-Santa Monica to historic districts.
  3. Obtain a copy of the city ordinance form the planning department. Obvious, yes, but too often overlooked, says former Preservation Dallas resident Rita Cox, who lives in Munger Place Historic District, next to the Peak’s suburban district. She says one new resident several years ago, tried to plant palm trees and add a circular driveway, both prohibited. He was livid, but had only himself to blame since he had never bothered to check the restrictions.
  4. Use the experts. Buying in a historic district? Look for a Realtor familiar with the area and the restrictions. Find architects and contractors who have experience working in special zoning areas because they know where to find hard-to-locate window and roof materials that fit requirements. In addition, Sandberg says city planning department employees can answer questions about requirements and restrictions and help explain the ordinance. A little help now, he says, averts trouble later.
  5. Visit Preservation Dallas. The non-profit organization located in our neighborhood offers a host of resources, including descriptions of the various districts, what makes each unique, and pointers about architectural styles so no one will confuse Tudor Revival with Prairie.
  6. Talk to the neighbors. Anyone buying or renovating should check not only with the people next door, but also with the neighborhood association. It’s not only polite, but it makes sense, says Dean, who figures the controversy over his closet had as much to do with the unwritten laws surrounding historic renovation as anything in the ordinance. “Be active in your approach,” he says, “instead of reactive.”

And sometimes, it all comes together.

“Our renovation was very painless,” says Kevin Moran who added 1,100 square feet to his home in Munger Place.

“It helped that I’m an architect, but what was really important was that I wanted to match the old house. If you do that, you’re in a good shape.”

And that’s all anyone should want anyway.


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