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Historic preservation 101: New ordinance making its way to the council

Historic preservation 101: New ordinance making its way to the council

The Rochester Heritage Preservation Commission on Tuesday unanimously signed off on a new draft ordinance that could potentially provide incentives for developers to repurpose historic buildings in the community.

It's the first meaningful progress on historic preservation in three years, and comes as the city prepares for a development boom under DMC. The proposal now heads to the city council, which will hold at least two public forums before voting on the issue. City department heads will also have a chance to give input. 

The draft ordinance was developed by a task force of six members, four of whom also serve on the commission. It's essentially a compromise between historic preservation advocates and commercial developers.

Task force members said that while the meetings were often contentious — and strong disagreements remain — all believed that this ordinance would provide the best way to move forward.

“This is a balanced ordinance that attempts to preserve the heritage of the city while balancing the rights of the property owners," according to city clerk Aaron Reeves, who worked closely with the task force in drafting the proposed ordinance. 

The proposal

Under the group's plan, historic properties would be broken up into two tiers:

Landmark properties are deemed so essential to the city's character that they must be preserved "regardless of owner consent." The task force recommended that the category include the 11 local properties listed on the National Register of Historic Places, including the Plummer House (featured in cover photo), Chateau Theatre and Rochester Armory.

The proposed ordinance would prevent owners from moving, demolishing or making major altercations to a landmark property without feedback from the public and consent from the city council. Owners of landmark properties would be eligible for financial incentives, though the proposal does not specify what those would be.

Photo: Chateau Theatre / The Med City Beat

Potential landmark properties may also have historic significance, but don't face nearly the same level of review as landmark properties. The task force filled this category with 125 properties, ranging from the Kahler Grand Hotel to St. Marys Hospital to Kathy's Pub.

Under the proposal, owners would be able to apply for landmark designation (opt in) or remove their properties from the list (opt out). If an owner chooses to opt out, they would not be eligible for relisting or accessing benefits for two years. 

The task forced decided against including 130+ historic buildings in the Pill Hill neighborhood in the ordinance. The group noted that the structures are under less development pressure and should be addressed separately. 

Photo: Kahler Grand Hotel / The Med City Beat

Concerns

Several speakers criticized the ordinance's "opt-in, opt-out" policy during the public comment period. Olmsted County District Court Judge Kevin Lund, who has spent more than 30 years working on historic preservation, called the ordinance a "toothless tiger" that "falls short of a workable ordinance."

Another worry was the fact that there really is no language in the ordinance regarding what kind of financial incentives would be available to developers.

It was a concern that was brought up by both Grow Rochester, a pro-business advocacy group made up of builders and realtors, and the Rochester Conservancy, which lobbies for historic preservation.

While the groups are often on conflicting sides of the preservation debate, both noted the need for clear, sustainable funding sources to encourage builders to renovate, not tear down, potentially historic buildings.

Reeves said that while the ordinance may reference incentives, a detailed financial incentive program would actually need to be a separate policy. City staff is currently working on a proposal that will be discussed by the commission at a future meeting. 

Click here to view the full proposed ordinance (note: minor changes have been made since it was first published in the council agenda packet).


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(Cover photo: Stefan P. / CC)

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