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Posted on July 4, 2011
The Real Power: Neighborhood Control
In part one of this two-part series, it was shown how our commissioners from both the City of Tallahassee and Leon County have allowed a private contractor, the Tallahassee Trust for Historic Preservation (TTHP), to take control of a public citizens’ advisory group, the Architectural Review Board (ARB). Half the membership is positioned to be compromised ethically. Two genuine citizen members have been replaced by TTHP board officers, making four total on the ARB. How does this matter? Neighborhoods. This is where the effect of voting control has huge impact upon large numbers of people. This is how other people, who know better than you how to take care of your own property, intend to make you do as they say, whether you like it or not.
Historic Preservation Overlay (HPO) Zoning
Tallahassee’s Land Development Code provides for designating a neighborhood as an Historic Preservation District, which gets automatically rezoned by the city. It’s called Historic Preservation Overlay zoning (HPO). With HPO, the entire visible portion of every property (structures and landscape) is controlled by the Architectural Review Board, in perpetuity.
District HPO rezoning can be done to any platted subdivision or any neighborhood, including commercial or industrial districts, over fifty years of age. It then applies to every building and property within the designated area, old or new. Future property use is sharply curtailed, regardless of the primary zoning allowances. New construction is also under ARB control. Board members can invent confounding building design requirements on the spot.
Guidelines incorporated into Tallahassee’s Land Development Code for determining HPO districts or regulating HPO properties are based on a national standard code which has been found to be “unconstitutionally vague” (Illinois Supreme Court). This vagueness, based on a “feeling and association” which contributes to a “sense of time and place” allows virtually any properties to be declared historically important, thereby justifying the rezoning process.
For day-to-day management of property issues, the ARB’s directive is to ensure all visible changes are appropriate to this “sense and feeling” of the district’s design and history. The actual exercise of such a fuzzy standard can be astonishing and frustrating. Appeals are nearly impossible. Cost or time are not factors they consider. It took one owner four months to get a roof shingle approved during Winter 2009. New paint on another home had to be sandblasted off, as the owner proceeded without the ARB Certificate Of Appropriateness. Driveways, roofing, windows, siding, fences, additions, doors, landscape features, painting, railings, handicap ramps — all require formal review…an endless, meddling intrusion.
Billion-Dollar Land Grab Plan Emerging From City Attorney’s Office:
We are rapidly approaching the magic fifty-year window for perhaps 20,000 homes in Tallahassee in about 150 neighborhoods: Betton Hills, Los Robles, Old Town, Killearn Estates, Indianhead Acres, Woodland Hills, Lehigh, Apalachee Ridge, Waverly Hills, Huntington Woods, Piedmont Park, plus very many more: Every subdivision built before or during the 1960s will be front and center soon. Then will follow the 1970s developments. Tallahassee will be a living museum akin to Williamsburg, VA. Tourists might come to visit and marvel….in about a hundred years.
Consider the market value of your home: 20% of that worth represents a reasonable valuation for a typical, voluntarily- deeded building conservation easement, with right of exterior control. The City of Tallahassee is going to seize that right from every property owner, without paying for it, through HPO rezoning. A billion dollars of property rights–stolen– from five-billion dollars of privately-owned real estate.
Here is the formula: Historic preservation ordinances manipulated into an illegitimate abomination by our City Attorney’s Office (CAO) + An ethically-compromised, puppet ARB + A sole-source, no-bid, unregulated city contractor (Tallahassee Trust for Historic Preservation) + An utterly compliant Planning Department + A Planning Commission that always rubber-stamps ARB votes and officially appends the HPO rezoning, and a City Commission that may know what is happening but won’t act in opposition to their City Attorney. The two Planning stages are conveniently contaminated by dual-role members who also serve on the ARB: This ensures continuity of the compromised ARB decision. There is no part of this process that will withstand scrutiny. Add in the Board of Adjustment and Appeals as enforcement agency. Yes, they can assess fines or take your house away. You have to cooperate. This is full government power and authority in action.
It’s Already Happening: Lafayette Park
Look at what has already happened in Lafayette Park Neighborhood, an interesting mix of 650 older homes in the triangle bounded by Miccosukee Road, Seventh Avenue and Gadsden Street. Here, where HPO rezoning is now pending, a small club calling itself a neighborhood association had fewer than 30 active members.
In 2008, an historic preservation application was originated by the TTHP in collusion with part of this Lafayette Park Neighborhood Association. This group provided faked documentation “proving” enormous community support for historic designation. This support was a presupposed necessity at that time.
The application, through changes manipulated by the city attorney, now contains a patently counterfeit “owner” certification signed by club members in place of the code-required property owners’ signatures.
The City Attorney’s office stands behind this counterfeit certification as being legitimate, thus opening the door for anyone to begin rezoning another’s property in Tallahassee, without their permission.
No reasonable person can conclude anything from this owner-permission fraud other than the fact that something gravely wrong is going on in the Tallahassee City Attorney’s office.
More Shenanigans on Lafayette Park Application
Included in the Lafayette Park application were over 500 nearly blank pages of forms, supposedly describing the specific history and details of each property. However, only the addresses were filled-in, plus phony historic descriptions such as “brick”. Yes, just “brick”, or in many cases, “vernacular,” an authentic-sounding, pseudo-expert, historic architecture adjective which is not applicable to any home in Tallahassee. There was not one legitimate State of Florida Historic Property Form as deemed appropriate by the Department of State, which coordinates historic preservation on a state level.
Interestingly, public record emails show the ARB members didn’t bother to pick up their review copies of the 1800-page application before arriving at the first meeting to vote on it. Vehement property-owner protests were ignored. The board hid behind Assistant City Attorney Linda Hudson: She engineered or justified every atrocity the ARB committed against the property owners. They did their deed: The ARB voted unanimously to approve this defective application.
This is the fruit of those ethical compromises described in the first article. This is the result when a private contractor is allowed to take over a public citizen advisory board.
Six months after the ARB voted, growing wrath from three hundred Lafayette Park property owners finally jolted the city commissioners from their inertia. In reaction, they put the neighborhood historic designation process in abeyance, hoping for calmer attitudes. Now, three long years after it began, this application still remains in limbo as a “pending rezoning.” Sellers and realtors who fail to disclose it are on the hook for hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages when it moves forward.
City Commission Turns A Blind Eye To City Attorney’s Behavior
The City Attorney designated the Lafayette Park application process “quasi-judicial.” CAO warned the city commissioners of terrible disclosure forms necessary, should they look at a single citizen letter or hear one complaint. The commissioners dutifully closed their eyes and ears to the people who elected them. Hundreds of earnest, impassioned emails and letters were filed away, unread. This is well documented with public record correspondence between commissioners’ staff and Assistant City Attorney Linda Hudson.
That disclosure form is a mere formality for the record. Our City Commissioners had a perfect legal right (and a moral obligation) to listen to constituents and read their emails and letters. They willingly chose not to do it. You are not alone if you think “quasi judicial” is code-speak for the City Attorney to tell our elected commissioners to look the other way while a piece of nasty business is going on.
New Code, New Loopholes…
Now, City Attorney staff are fine-tuning their scheme: Seizing upon a requested code revision from the Long Range Target Issue Commission, with an advisory “Citizens Workgroup”, they are re-writing land development code language for neighborhood historic designations. Expect new loopholes big enough to shove neighborhoods through. We’ve seen the current code’s boilerplate property-owner protection evaporate at the first touch of the city attorney staff. Already, one workgroup member has informed the City Manager the results will not protect private property rights.
“Historic Preservation” is a very positive, heart-warming phrase, conjuring up an image of Grandma’s house, porch rockers, a shady yard and happy times. Shame on anyone who would venture to speak against such a wonderful thing. Beware!
In Tallahassee, “Historic Preservation” is a sugar-coated, misleading label designed to conceal a cold legal procedure whereby your right to control your own home is taken away through this thing called “overlay zoning.” True zoning is a passive categorization of land use to segregate incompatible uses. HPO zoning is an aggressive, continuous manipulation of every property and property owner. Afternoon ice cream with Grandma on the porch has nothing to do with this. It’s a method of control where property owners are forced to become tenants, while city government and the TTHP become their landlord through the ARB. It’s about Grandpa rolling over in his grave at what’s going on.
A Solution is Possible
This catastrophe to our personal lives and homes can be prevented through two simple code changes:
1. Specify in the land development code that HPO zoning cannot apply to Neighborhood district designations.
HPO rezoning should only be done on a property-by-property basis, when individual property owners (who will learn all too well the burden such zoning imposes) specifically apply for it. It will have trifling value once the City grant fund is depleted.
2. Make all HPO rezoning owner-revocable at any time through a simple, signed form, filed through the Tax Appraiser’s office.
Eventually, every owner of an historic re-zoned property will discover what the Tallahassee Architectural Review Board is like in actual practice. The only way to keep such a board in line is to have them face the consequences of having an owner opt out and walk away, rather than put up with their cooked votes. No governing board, given infinite authority, and freedom to act without written rules, will operate honorably.
The Not-So-Simple Part….
Another part of the solution is not so simple: The Tallahassee Trust for Historic Preservation, while contracting with both the City of Tallahassee and Leon County, is apparently striving to subvert our honest governing processes for their own benefit. This contractor’s unscrupulous efforts are openly supported and aided by the City Attorney’s Office, which is even more suspect. This contract needs to end.
And, finally, the City Attorney’s office needs immediate, major changes. If this much harm is happening through their efforts on an issue so small as historic preservation, we probably have a major earthquake about to occur in the other city departments.
The Architectural Review Board, The Planning Department, the Planning Commission and the contract with Tallahassee Trust for Historic Preservation are all jointly operated by both Tallahassee and Leon County.
Email every City Commissioner: http://www.talgov.com/email.cfm?id=commissioners
Email every Leon County Commissioner: http://www.leoncountyfl.gov/BCC/email/
A copy of this story, with extensive supplemental information and source data, will be posted at HistoricLafayettePark.com. This website newsletter was founded specifically to expose these abuses.
Mark S. Daniel
Editor & Publisher, HistoricLafayettePark.com
July 4, 2011