State preservationist talks historic preservation
by Paige Rentz
Gathered in one of the city’s newest old buildings, a group of Jacksonville residents sought ways to protect the history of one of the oldest cities in the area.

Mary Shell, a preservation planner with the Alabama Historical Commission, met with city leaders and citizens Tuesday in Jacksonville’s restored train depot about creating a local historical preservation commission.

Tuesday’s meeting grew out of a proposal by Jerry Klug, former president of the Jacksonville Historical Society, before the City Council in September. At the time, council members were hesitant to commit to something that might lead to greater regulation of the city’s property owners.

Mayor Johnny Smith echoed those concerns Tuesday. He said he would prefer to take baby steps toward a commission and potential regulation.

“I didn’t say I didn’t want it, I just think it’s something we’ve got to be very careful about,” he said, adding that in regard to property owners, “I think we might be pinning them down a little too much with what they can and can’t do.”

Shell explained the several steps Jacksonville would need to take to become a “certified local government,” a designation conferred by the National Park Service and states for local governments that can increase access to grants for preservation. First, the City Council must adopt a local ordinance establishing the historical commission and appoint at least seven members who receive training in historic preservation and have backgrounds in related fields such as law, architecture and archaeology.

Those commission members would be responsible for surveying city properties, proposing any historic districts that could be subject to regulation and compiling a set of guidelines for the renovation of historic properties. The commission would hold public hearings on such issues and then submit recommendations to the City Council, whose responsibility it would be to approve any new city policies.

The Historic Preservation Commission, much like the current Planning Commission, would then have approval authority for any renovations to properties in the historic district.

The program also requires that the city appoint an existing staff member to serve as a liaison to the commission. Any new regulations would require that city officials enforce them, Shell said.

“It’s a good thing, but it is something cities need to make sure they’ve got the capacity to support because you don’t want to set it up and it not run well,” she said.

Shell was careful to note that designation of a historic district does not give a local commission the power to review properties, only the authority to approve changes a property owner may propose as they relate to historical character.

But, Shell noted, a commission does not necessarily have to create any local districts to regulate, though the state commission does not encourage that method.

Councilman Jonathan Tompkins said he thinks implementing the certified local government program would be a favorable move for the city.

“There are objections that need to be reasonably addressed, but I think it’s a win,” Tompkins said. “It has proven to be a win other cities.”

Shell said benefits of taking part in the program include additional technical assistance from the state commission for restoration, new grant opportunities, and the ability for the community to protect local resources. The Alabama Historical Commission devotes 10 percent of its annual federal funding – this year about $85,000 – to grant programs for certified local governments to support promotion and preservation of local history, but not actual brick and mortar projects.

“We’re very open if you have a project that you want funded, we will try to find a way to make it fit the federal guidelines,” she said. “We’re very open to making this grant program fit your needs.”

Residents who gathered for the meeting were outspoken in support of the program, suggesting the potential marketing tools that could come with grant eligibility, maintaining the character of old neighborhoods and added protection for property owners who have invested in historic homes.

Shell told the group that studies conducted by her organization and other entities have shown that local protections can, in fact, increase property values.

“It gives you a better sense of ease that when someone does something next door, they’re going to go by the same design standards you went by,” she said. “It levels the playing field.”

Staff Writer Paige Rentz: 256-235-3564. On Twitter @PRentz_Star.
© 2013