Angela Hunt: Why does the city want to change conservation districts?

13.11.26-Angela-Hunt-Headshot-DFulgencio-0024-2Drive a block in any direction in East Dallas, and you’re likely to find yourself in a historic neighborhood. Whether it’s the intricate Tudor cottages of the M Streets and Hollywood/Santa Monica, the stately mansions along Swiss Avenue, or the sprawling, neighborly porches of the prairie-style homes of Munger Place, East Dallas boasts more conservation districts, historic districts and neighborhood stabilization overlays than just about any other part of the city.

Our expansive collection of historic homes did not occur by accident or as the result of the farsighted wisdom of City Hall planners. It is directly attributable to the hard work of residents determined to preserve the character and charm of homes threatened by demolition, neglect, improper zoning and incompatible infill.

Obtaining preservation status is a long, arduous process initiated and led by neighborhood volunteers. It requires countless meetings, architectural and historical analysis of each home, codification of the protections sought, and neighborhood consensus on the proposed plan. The process can takes months, and sometimes years, to complete. At that point, the city sends zoning ballots to property owners to gauge neighborhood support (a part of the process common to all types of zoning changes). The proposal is presented to the City Plan Commission and, if approved, forwarded to the City Council for ultimate determination. It’s a challenging process, but one that has worked well in allowing determined, united neighborhoods to obtain preservation protection while weeding out those unable to establish consensus.

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The City of Dallas oversees the rezoning process, but it would be an overstatement to say the city is a proponent of historic preservation. At best, it is agnostic.

The City of Dallas oversees the rezoning process, but it would be an overstatement to say the city is a proponent of historic preservation. At best, it is agnostic. The city’s historic-preservation department is understaffed, which doesn’t help matters, but there is also a sense that the city is averse to the creation of new preservation districts.

Now, unprompted by neighborhoods or preservationists, city staff propose to change the way conservation districts are created. As the old adage goes: “If it ain’t broke, please, please, City Hall, don’t fix it.” Ostensibly, the intent is to clarify the process for neighborhoods. But the conservation district process has served neighborhoods well for more than 30 years, so I’m skeptical of the real impetus for these changes.

Some of the suggested revisions would make it much more difficult to obtain conservation district status. One proposed change would significantly increase the percentage of property owners required to initiate the process (from a simple majority to a super-majority). Another would introduce a new standard prohibiting the City Council from voting on any proposed conservation district unless a super-majority of property owners returned their ballots in favor. This would have the effect of counting abstentions as “no” votes in the balloting process, a Draconian counting method used in no other rezoning procedure in the city (and certainly not one employed during City Council elections).

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These suggested changes aren’t set in stone, and it’s unclear what ultimately will be presented to the City Council. But city staff’s proposals are concerning and telling. Commercial developers (and their paid consultants and teams of attorneys) who seek rezoning aren’t required to meet these restrictive standards. So why should neighborhood volunteers seeking conservation district protection be faced with additional obstacles when the process is already challenging?

As the proposed changes are discussed in the coming months, it will be important for those of us who have most benefited from historic preservation — through increased home values, greater neighborhood stability, a sense of community, and freedom from incompatible infill — to make our voices heard. East Dallas would not be East Dallas without our historic homes, and we need to ensure that future neighborhoods have the same opportunities to preserve their unique character.

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  • Lucas

    As a resident in a lovely old neighborhood, I voted for our Conservation District. Now, years later as a homeowner undergoing a remodel, I regret doing it. The word “Draconian” is quite applicable to where I now live. My house was slotted into an architectural style with no ability to appeal that style, my plans are reviewed by a single person with no ability to appeal that person’s decision, and my material requirements are locked into an aging document with no ability to amend/modify/appeal that either. Given the incredibly intrusive nature of these districts and their impact on every single homeowner, I definitely agree with the need for super-majorities in all phases, as well as a defined appeal/review process. I’m not even allowed to recreate existing conditions on my house because they don’t fall into the “style” I’ve been slotted into!

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  • MoMo1958

    Have you looked at your property tax bill lately? I haven’t seen the value of my home in the Vickery Place Conservation District diminished. It has gone up considerably!

  • Spud

    The super majority requirement makes sense because creation of a conservation district represents an enormous change to the status quo and one that could easily diminish the value of the properties covered by the overlay. Also, I don’t think your use of “agnostic” is correct; I think the word you’re looking for is “ambivalent.”

  • Julie Sherrod

    True community business partners don’t take from the city or work to change laws to favor business over the good of the community. True community business partners give to the city that sustains them. Why do our city officials have this turned around? How do we replace corrupt city government with progressive thinkers willing to preserve our assets and build a sustainable high quality of life for our community?

  • Angela Hunt

    Melissa Kingston has pulled together a great analysis of the proposed changes to conservation districts. She has kindly agreed to let me repost it:

  • Woodrow Wildcat

    I am wondering how a two-story home was built on Glenrose in the one-story section of the Lakewood Country Club Estates Conservation District…

  • Wylie H Dallas

    This is disturbing, but not surprising. City staff consistently appears to be hostile to citizen participation, viewing them as meddlesome interlopers.

  • Gay Hopkins

    The proposed ordinance is now before the Z O C, an advisory committee consisting of three plan commissioners and three volunteers. The next meeting is scheduled for 20 March. I attended the one this past Thursday, 20 February. Watch the city’s website for a posting of time. I urge you to attend these early meetings and express your opinion. Ms. Hunt uses the term “Draconian counting method” so I will borrow her term in regard to the proposal as it now stands. If the plan commission denies the application for a conservation district the applicant has to go through a Draconian method to appeal to the city council, responsible to the voters which the plan commission is not. In an e mail to the above committee I stated that even if the plan commission denies an applicant’s request for a zoning change for a parking lot the applicant can appeal to the council as soon as the appeal can be posted to the council’s agenda.