More than three years ago, and after enough outcry from residents, The Leader began a daunting task of trying to understand the process for renovating homes in the formally designated historic area of the Heights.
We conducted interviews, attended meetings of the Houston Archaeological and Historic Commission and listened as homeowners in the Heights grappled with arbitrary demands from the city’s greatest compilation of pontificators a poor soul has ever had to endure.
As we heard the stories of homeowners and the tens of thousands of dollars they spent drafting plans and hiring consultants to get an approving nod from HAHC, our opinion was that an over-zealous lot of appointees had far too much arbitrary control over the lives of people who live in our area.
In one instance, there was a home in the historic Heights that had a 30-foot eave height. A homeowner next door wanted to remodel and also have a 30-foot eave height. Amazingly, HAHC denied that request. As one board member said, “I just don’t like the fabric of the optics.”
That’s when we realized something was incredibly wrong with the way a supposedly benign historic preservation ordinance had become perverted. When a group of board members had the ability to unilaterally dictate what a family could do with their home simply because the board didn’t like the way something looked, our newspaper felt the city needed to make a change.
In January 2014, we called for that change. Specifically, we suggested that the city of Houston must give greater clarity to homeowners in the Heights. Either 30-foot eave heights were OK or they weren’t. You couldn’t allow it in one place and deny it for the house across the street.
Amazingly, city administrators either heard enough from us or got tired of citizen complaints (probably a combination of both) and decided they would add some clarity to what a homeowner can and cannot do to his or her home in the protected area of the historic district.
In essence, the city finally capitulated and said they would begin the process of drafting Design Guidelines, which would then give some of the sanctimonious members of HAHC a book that would replace their personal optics.
Initially, everyone cheered. By drafting these guidelines, there would be no more arbitrary decisions – no subjective criteria based on how a commissioner felt from one month to the next. The city hired a professional consulting firm to handle the task of surveying the public and figuring out what should and should not be allowed in the Heights.
For almost two years, The Leader has followed up on this process (government does not move quickly, my friend). We have reported on public meetings concerning these Design Guidelines. We have talked to the Planning Department to understand the goals of these guidelines. And until recently, we had been encouraged that something – anything – was being done to ease concerns of the public.
Until recently, that is.
On Tuesday, June 20, from 6-8 p.m. at the Heights Fire Station, the city’s Planning Department and their consulting firm will hold its final public hearing to review a set of guidelines that may or may not shock the sheetrock out of homeowners in the Heights – especially those considering renovations. If you happen to be a Realtor in the Heights, or if you have considered selling your home in the next decade or so, you might be interested in what these new guidelines reveal.
Let’s start with the simple ones. If you have existing windows in your homes and you want to try to match them (especially their light patterns), you probably won’t get approval. Builders are required to use windows that look horribly cheap.
If you want to maximize the space you have in your home and add dormers, you probably won’t get approval.
If you have children and want to add to your home, your additions won’t be able to start until the back of your home. You can’t start a second story on top of the existing structure, even though the original ordinance said you could start 50 percent back, or 30 percent to the side.
But here’s what should frighten people the most in the Heights. The proposed guidelines say that if you have a 6,600-square-foot lot, your home can be no more than 2,700 square feet. If you have a 5,000-square-foot lot, your home can be no larger than 2,200 square feet.
That doesn’t sound terrible (especially for the small lot sizes in the Heights), but what you haven’t been told is that these guidelines may include language that your porch and your garage count toward that total square footage. So if you’re on one of the larger lots, and you have a 500 square-foot garage, you’re only allowed 2,200 for your home – assuming you don’t have a front porch, because that must be deducted, as well. This doesn’t even follow the rules the Harris County Appraisal District uses.
This historic preservation application has been a nightmare for a lot of people since its amendment under former Mayor Annise Parker, and you may wonder why we think this is such a big deal.
The future of our area isn’t about the stores that move here or the principals at our schools. The way to maintain a wonderful neighborhood is to have a diverse band of residents who can have families here and provide stability for this community.
With some of the proposed Design Guidelines, we’re all but making it impossible for new families to move into the Heights. Most of them aren’t looking for 1,800 square-foot mini homes for their small children. They want, and need, the opportunity to increase their home, and that’s possible even while preserving the historic character of our neighborhoods.
Some of the proposed guidelines will make it tough to sell our homes in the future. Our renovations will be useless and we’ll all but tell growing families that we don’t want them in our neighborhood. Ask the people at Harvard Elementary or Hamilton Middle what they think of that.
If you’re a homeowner in the historic area of the Heights, you’d be well served to follow the lead of people like Bill Baldwin, Mark Williamson, Brie Kelman and Sue Lovell. I assume they’ll all be at the June 20 meeting speaking out about some of these changes. You should mark June 20 on your calendar, too.