Historic District Ordinance in Winter Park passes

Park Avenue (courtesy Winter Park Public Library archives)

Late in the evening of November 9, the Winter Park City Commission passed 3-2 a revision to the Historic Preservation Ordinance.  This revision strengthens the ordinance and brings Winter Park into the orbit of cities with reasonable protection of their historic resources.  The City Commission did the right thing.

No small controversy surrounded the vote.  Heritage tourism, a sense of place, and nicely rising property values will be part of the future – what’s not to like?
Apparently, a lot.  A huge campaign was mounted against the ordinance revision, putting out pictures of houses wrapped in chains, and merrily smearing supporters on facebook.
As it turned out, the campaign was stirred by a small private interest group that was ultimately unable to sway the majority of the commission away from approval.
Winter Park already has an historic preservation ordinance.  Its weaknesses, however, were identified several years ago.  The Historic Preservation Board, a volunteer group, has few qualifications for service.  Demolition permits can be granted without Board review, so historic resources may be removed without any documentation.  And, most importantly, the requirement to form an historic district was 67% approval by all homeowners involved, a supermajority.
One aspect of the ordinance wasn’t passed.  No qualifications are needed to serve on the Historic Preservation Board, making this board open to “stacking” by special interests, and making Winter Park an outlier amongst cities that operate such bodies.
Delaying demolition permits by 30 days will give the city staff time to assess a home’s historic value, was unpopular and scrapped in the final ordinance. The language of Monday night’s ordinance may need some more cleanup in this respect, but the essence of the delay was preserved.  This delay only applies to structures on the city’s historic resources listing.  Delay allows documentation of a structure, even if it succumbs to the bulldozer’s cruel blade, and sometimes gives the home’s owner a time to reflect.
That wasn’t what the shouting was all about, however.  Reducing the supermajority of homes to a simple majority caused an outcry.  If historic districts can form more easily, a few people wrongly feared the restrictions as a reduction in property rights.  Spectres of design police were waved, warning of things that never happen in historic districts – homes wasting away, realtors driving Volkswagen Rabbits….  Residents, stirred by these concerns, spoke to the City Commission about their doorknobs and paint colors.  Surely these would still be OK?
The Mayor and Commission were overcome by common sense, a refreshing change in today’s regrettably polarized, shrill political climate.  This ordinance won’t constraint property rights any more than building codes or the current ordinance does. Instead, the ordinance merely ensures democracy in the formation of historic districts, a good thing in a town that values history like  Winter Park.  Like Jackie Onassis once said about historic structures, “they belong to everybody.”
The City Commission made the correct move.  Clearing the way for historic districts to blossom will increase tourism to Winter Park and protect property values in a city that already enjoys high rates of return.  Our children and grandchildren may just have something from the past left over to point to.  Bulldozers can still roll freely through the streets, and people who want to live in historic neighborhoods will cluster there.  People who want to live in new homes will cluster in new developments like Windsong or Baldwin Park.  Everyone wins.
Unfortunately, the ordinance must still survive intact after two more public readings.  At each public reading, it is subject to further tweaks. One such tweak, snuck in at the very end, has already reduced its teeth.  A proposal by one commissioner was floated to make the minimum size of a district 12 contiguous homes.
On the surface, that seems reasonable.  The word contiguous, however, should be struck on the next reading.  Winter Park, a small municipality, is rich in small enclaves of historic structures, but it is going to be difficult to form a district out of 12 that actually all touch.  The current district of Virginia Heights may not even comply with this request.
So what the large print giveth, the fine print may taketh away…like a planet moving in retrograde, Winter Park’s compliance with national historic district standards seemed to move closer to the center, but with this one troubling addition, it may shift back out towards the darkness of individualistic space where so many of our social issues seem to shift.
It is important for the next two readings to remove the word “contiguous” and maintain the ordinance revisions just as they were specified over two years ago.  This will give Winter Parkers a chance to enjoy the quality of place that has come to be associated with their city, allow assets to appreciate, heritage tourism to expand, and keep the broadest possible benefits available to the largest number of people.

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