Historic districts in SLC could be set by popular vote
One member fears ducking legislator's dictum could "gut our historic preservation program."
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You can't please all the people all the time — especially when it comes to creating local historic preservation districts — but how about placating a majority of homeowners and at least one nosy legislator?

The Salt Lake City Council has grabbed up the gauntlet tossed down by state Sen. Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, who demanded the city revamp regulations on local historic districts or face a fix by state lawmakers.

The council is not fond of the meddling but nonetheless feels the hot political breath of legislators whose authority can supersede its own.

A majority of council members are molding new ordinances that would, for the first time, rely on homeowner balloting when creating historic districts. The proposed linchpin for creating new districts would be a majority favorable vote — 50 percent plus one — within a designated area.

In addition to historic districts, the council may create a less rigorous preservation tool, dubbed "character conservation" districts. The proposal would allow residents of any area, historic or otherwise, to create restrictions, most notably on size.

The aim is to head off stalemates like the one now holding the city's east-side Yalecrest area hostage.

But Councilman Luke Garrott fears the council is caving in to state lawmakers and property-rights activists at the cost of historic preservation.

"I'm not willing to gut our historic preservation program for the sake of those political realities," he said regarding the popular vote proposal.

When the Yalecrest community council sought in 2009 to create a new historic district, it was as though the Hatfields and McCoys had invaded the quaint neighborhoods of tudors and bungalows. What began as a heartfelt effort to save the ambiance of Yalecrest in the wake of a spate of tear-downs and ensuing monster houses escalated into a nasty feud pitting neighbor against neighbor.

Before preservationists could marshal a historic district through the ungainly city process, property rights activists had mobilized and solicited redress from Niederhauser.

In 2011, state lawmakers slapped a moratorium on the creation of new historic districts. The wake-up call more than hinted that the city had to give increased credence to property owners' rights.

Mindful of the Capitol Hill gang, the council's discussions are progressing and adoption of new ordinances is expected in coming weeks.

But Garrott fears the city is about to embrace a policy shift that would make all but impossible the creation of large historic districts because too many property owners would have to embrace them.

A proposed ordinance would, for the first time, allow historic districts to be initiated by a petition signed by 15 percent of the property owners in a defined area. The proposal also would allow the City Council or mayor to launch the process, as is the case now. Community councils, which have initiated such districts in the past, would be eliminated from the process

But what sticks in Garrott's craw is this: No matter how a district is initiated, for it to become reality a majority of property owners who send in ballots would have to approve it. Officially, the council would still have the final say — yea or nay — but Garrott believes no council would override a popular vote.

Small historic districts and character conservation districts may sprout here and there under the proposed scenario, Garrott said. But "meaningful" historic preservation would be undermined.

By contrast, Councilman Charlie Luke, whose east-side district includes the Yalecrest area — which encompasses some 1,400 houses in four neighborhoods — said the city's historic preservation process is broken. "Yalecrest proved that," he said of the dispute.

According to Luke, if the proposed Yalecrest historic district had a majority of popular support, the area would not have been thrown into turmoil. In addition, he said, the process has to be more clear-cut.

"I'm all for historic preservation," he said. "But I'm also in favor of people having a say on their property."

Luke said a second proposal, which would create the less restrictive character conservation districts, would work in tandem with a revamped historic district ordinance to offer residents relief from monster houses. And the result is still historic preservation, he said.

But Kirk Huffaker, executive director of the Utah Heritage Foundation, is troubled by the majority vote proposal.

"We are not in favor of a community vote on zoning," he said. "That power should rest and always has rested with the City Council."

Jon Dewey, a past chairman of the Yalecrest community council who supports a historic district there, echoed Huffaker's concerns.

"I think the City Council is abdicating its duties in leading the city in preservation," he said. "We should not be zoning by vote. They are setting a dangerous precedent."

In the end, however, the council needs to know that proposed districts have popular support, said Council Chairman Soren Simonsen.

"There is no doubt that any threshold will make it more difficult," he acknowledged. But he added that the 51 percent approval is measured only by the ballots returned to the city. That, he maintained, makes the threshold lower and the historic district designation easier to attain because disinterested homeowners most likely won't participate.

csmart@sltrib.com