After nearly three years of workshops, meetings and discussions over the criteria to be used to govern alterations to homes in the Heights historic districts, a May 31 vote on the preliminary draft… was pushed to June.
The Houston Archaeological and Historical Commission held a special meeting to discuss the 87 comments received at an early May hearing and consider changes to the draft guidelines. The commission spent 3.5 hours discussing three dozen proposed changes and voting on each one separately.
Staff will now make the changes approved on May 31 and send the 200-plus page guideline document to the commission for a possible up or down vote at their June 14 meeting. (This will take place at 3 p.m. on that Thursday afternoon in the City Hall annex.)
Approval of the guidelines will send the draft document to the Quality of Life Committee, possibly as early as that body’s June 27 meeting – and then on the Houston City Council.
HAHC Chairperson Minnette Boesel expressed appreciation for the diligence of all the commissioners, city housing staff and active participants in the process from the Heights neighborhoods impacted by the proposed guidelines. There were a dozen come-and-go audience members in attendance, about half of them wearing green “YESHGC” buttons in support of the guideline process.
During discussions of plate height requirements, floor area ratio formulae and window replacement, the delicate balance between historic preservation and private property rights unfolded one line item at a time.
“I think we’ve all had a taste of what it’s like to try to build a home in the Heights,” said Commissioner Sue Lovell during a discussion about dormers and roof pitch. “This is exactly the frustration people feel. When you come to (city housing) staff with something, you’re told, ‘You can’t do it, can’t do it.’”
The commission spent 45 minutes discussing what to do about another formula determining the threshold for window replacement. It was seen as too subjective by some and would have been impactful on all historic district guidelines citywide. The formula was ultimately removed altogether.
Guideline language encouraging homeowners to install coffered ceilings as a way to add space to regulated ceiling heights was removed from the document, because the city has limited jurisdiction over the interior design of a private home (outside of safety needs).
There was quite a bit of discussion about the floor area ratio (FAR) requirements, including attic exemptions, dormer requirements and exaggerated roofs. Lovell said there had been discussion to compromise on these issues, but she didn’t see those ideas included in the revised document presented by city staff. She said the FAR requirements should be for lot usage rather than control of a home’s interior, especially accounting for upper floors.
After numerous comments from the public about garage sizes, city staff recommended increasing the square footage for a detached garage from 400 feet to 528. While a homeowner can build any size garage they wish, the number discussed would be an “exemption” from counting toward the overall home area allowed on a historic Heights lot.
Lovell proposed no size restrictions for attached or detached garages, on the logic that lot size would determine how large an individual homeowner’s garage could be.
“I’m philosophically opposed to telling people the size of their garage,” she said. Her motion to increase the exemption to 576 feet failed on a split vote.
Commissioner Ben Koush then made a motion to increase the exemption to 441 square feet, which also failed. Finally, Commissioner Stephen McNeil proposed to accept staff recommendation of 528 feet and this motion passed unanimously.
HAHC also approved an increased floor height of 36 inches, up from the initial proposal of 32 inches. Many of the items which drew public comments required no changes to the draft guidelines or were simply corrections or commentary which could not be acted upon.
For a complete list of items discussed on May 31, visit www.houstontx.gov/planning and scroll down to the Historic Districts Design Guidelines project page link.