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Historic Tax Exemptions
by Richard Hardin on July 9th, 2010

I know many of you share my passion and concern for historic landmarks in our city. Those who know me, know that I have feared the runaway landmark zoning abuses in west Austin could sink the lifeboat, and it seems as though my fears are coming true. ACC has just voted to withdraw from participation in historic tax exemptions this year.

Hopefully the City of Austin, AISD, Travis County, and even ACC will all come to understand the need a TARGETED FIX to the historic landmark tax exemption program; and not choose a simplistic "baby-and-bathwater-bludgeoning" of ALL historic properties capping, eliminating or lowering all historic exemptions across the board.

THE PROBLEM IS SF-ZONED RESIDENTIAL NEIGHBORHOODS, where it is stylish and easy to hire consultants to get a landmark designation for already well maintained mansions. In many cases these homes were not of landmark quality, and all are owned by the comfortable or wealthy. These very nice homes are not being threatened by neglect or demolition; they suffer no economic need. IT SERVES NO PUBLIC PURPOSE TO WASTE OUR HISTORIC PRESERVATION EFFORTS, PUBLIC GOODWILL, OR ECONOMIC RESOURCES ON THESE RESIDENTIAL MANSIONS.

Alternatively, downtown (where the oldest, venerable, and vulnerable historic landmarks are situated), many of these buildings are burdens on their owners, struggling to compete economically as small offices, or retail. Many of these are like the James Brown House at 7th & Guadalupe built in 1846. Built on the actual bedrock (as the foundation), by hand before the civil war, with solid masonry rubble and stucco walls and thin wooden single pane windows. Hard to heat and cool, excessive common areas (tenants do not want to pay for non-efficient, non-usable areas), no ability to relocate or move walls to suit an office tenant's needs, expensive to maintain, and requiring annual patching and painting of the rubble/stucco walls, which crack through traffic vibration of the bedrock.

The James Brown House is fairly typical of WHY the program was instituted and is a glaring example of the NEED, and the PUBLIC PURPOSE.

This ORIGINAL AUSTIN CORE AREA (the original city of Austin...downtown and part of east Austin), and these non-SF (single family zoned) commercially zoned properties need to have the current historic tax exemption program maintained, in order to compete and survive. Downtown land is extremely expensive, with high-rises being the "highest and best" use. This economic pressure makes it difficult to induce owners to offer property for historic landmark designation, but also drives up tax valuation on already historically zoned downtown properties, whose land is UNDEVELOPABLE due to the historic limitation. Giving these a tax break is FAIR, and serves the PUBLIC PURPOSE.

Old Enfield, Pemberton Heights, and similar neighborhoods with monolithic SF-3 zoned properties, that are high-end, well maintained, owner occupied residences, are NOT FACING ANY REAL CHALLENGE OR THREAT. These west Austin mansion/homes currently ARE the HIGHEST AND BEST USE OF THEIR ZONING!

Conclusion, TARGET THE FIX. Don't revise the historic landmark tax exemption program by limiting or capping it for ALL PROPERTIES. Deal with either base district zoning for NON-SF (commercial) or deal with geographic "downtown & east Austin" differently and allow these properties or areas, to continue with the current program. TARGET THE FIX. One size does not fit all.

I am encouraged to see Travis County's Judge Biscoe's quotes in the attached Statesman Article today:
"I think there are too many historical exemptions, they amount to too much money, and there are too many beneficiaries paying too little as a result," said Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe. Particularly when the exemption is coupled with a homestead exemption and a tax break for homeowners older than age 65 , he said, "we have some owners of valuable property who pay next to nothing in taxes. That was not the program's intent." Judge Biscoe clearly appears to understand where the problem resides, NOT WITH ALL PROPERTIES but rather the recent high-end SF home abuses. He goes on to further state: He said he doesn't envision the county "wiping out the exemption completely, but I do see us making it more difficult to obtain, maybe by putting a cap on the exemption or eliminating it for some." I agree! Eliminate or cap it for some, but not all.

Also of note is Allen Kaplan, vice chairman of the Austin Community College's board: "The third motivation is what the city did this past year, which was give piles of historic exemptions in West Austin, some of which are seriously questionable,"

We are at a critical point in the public discussion, and we need to make sure that we TARGET THE ABUSE, THE RISK, AND THE PROBLEM. Outlying SF neighborhoods which are actively planning or applying for Local Historic Districts should not be allowed to abuse the historic landmark program. Done properly with strong private owner support, LHDs truly ARE the best preservation tool for these residential neighborhoods, NOT historic landmarking with historic tax breaks.

Sincerely,
Rick Hardin
 
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Historic Tax Exemptions
by Judith Sanders on July 11th, 2010

I was somewhat amused to read the recent posting by Rick Hardin regarding the historic landmark tax abatement debate currently underway in our community. Mr. Hardin set the field ablaze with his June 10 presentation to City Council (Agenda Item #29, for those who may wish to watch it online) and is now in the unfortunate position of trying to fan the flames in a certain direction.

Good luck with that Mr. Hardin. The sleeping giant of Social Equity has been wakened. To the giant, all millionaires look alike, regardless of whether they own residential mansions or million dollar commercial properties downtown.

On the surface, Mr. Hardin argues some millionaires really are more deserving of tax breaks than others. But buried inside the hyperbole is the legitimate argument that homeowners have an obvious self-interest in improving and maintaining their own homes. For some, it follows then that these homeowners should not need additional incentives for saving or maintaining an historic home. By contrast, he argues that commercial property owners are foregoing "the highest and best use" of their properties to save an historic property and are thus deserving.

That argument might be plausible if this weren't Austin. Austin's hodgepodge zoning makes the entire central area a hodgepodge of owner expectations, even for properties currently zoned SF-3. A buyer may purchase an SF-3 property, with a single-family historic building on it, surrounded by more intensely zoned parcels and multifamily buildings. That purchase may have been made for the express purpose of seeking new zoning, MF-4, e.g., to redevelop in line with the surrounding properties and cash in on the densification of central Austin. So the tax abatement could incentivize a decision to retain both the single family (SF-3) residential zoning and the landmark-worthy building.

Another example: some historic single-family homes are already situated on land that has been up-zoned to MF-4 in the 70s and 80s. Yet those owners forego "the highest and best use of the property" to purchase (in some cases remain in), restore, live in and maintain the truly historic landmark they have (in some cases by their very presence) saved. After the fact, the value of property in the central area has risen around them, so their taxes have risen. Are their efforts to save, maintain, and stay in their homes (as opposed to cashing in) any less deserving of incentives to preserve a truly historic structure than those of a downtown commercial property owner?

Finally, our City leaders are about to consider a package of lucrative compensations for owners of new landmark properties downtown--- transferable development rights (TDRs). Those owners will be able to sell the development rights they have foregone by preserving their landmark property. Thus, when the plan is adopted, they will be well compensated for the very thing that Mr. Hardin argues makes them more worthy--- not developing to the highest and best use. True, the compensation will not come at the expense of the City coffers, but why offer any additional compensation at taxpayer expense? Borrowing a phrase from Mr. Hardin, where's the threat to the landmark once the TDR has been sold?

I agree with Mr. Hardin when he calls for targeted solutions. But his target and mine may be quite different. Millionaires not withstanding, I'd prefer to first target problems with core aspects of the tax abatement program itself:

<>The bar for what is historic or uniquely worthy of landmarking must be raised, and both the City Preservation Staff and Historic Landmark Commission must maintain the integrity of that new, more clearly drawn standard.
<>The current abatements are too generous both in proportion and longevity. (The amount of abatement could be curtailed and sunset. That's not to say there could not be additional incentives for reinvestment by the same owner, or need-based abatements on a case-by-case basis.)

That said, the lifeboat was swamped and the leviathan is awake.

We cannot escape a community conversation about big picture issues, like how to achieve social equity. But please, must that conversation stoop to the the tragi-comedy of parsing which millionaires are more worthy of tax breaks than others?

Judith Morrow Sanders
 
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Historic Tax Exemptions
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