Senator backs down on bill altering historic-district rules

February 11, 2010

A state senator has agreed to put on hold a bill that would have stripped the Indianapolis Historic Preservation Commission of much of its authority to regulate changes to structures in historic districts.

Responding to an uproar from historic preservationists and neighborhood groups, Sen. Patricia Miller, R-Indianapolis, has agreed to appoint a summer committee to study potential changes to state codes governing historic preservation, instead of pushing forward on Senate Bill 177.

The legislation, which had passed on a party-line vote in the Senate, would have added new "hardship" language to the statutes and allowed property owners to appeal IHPC decisions to the Metropolitan Development Commission or City-County Council.

The codes now require property owners to go to court if they can't find common ground with IHPC, a city division comprised of a nine-member board and a professional design and zoning review staff. Neighborhood groups say the system is working to add value to historic areas, and point out the commission has denied only about 1 percent of cases since it was formed in 1967.

They argue that giving property owners an appeal option would gut IHPC's authority to regulate historic districts by requiring property owners to work with commission staff on restoration efforts. Neighborhoods are only designated as historic after approval from more than 70 percent of an area's residents.

Miller said she just wants "fairness and a level playing field." She's talked with residents who think the applications for making changes to historic homes are too long, filing costs are too expensive and it takes too long to get approval.

She said the legislation was inspired by a handful of incidents including the experience of the congregation of St. John United Church of Christ, which had hoped to build a new church and sell the old one to a developer that planned demolition. Instead, IHPC and the Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana got involved and won an emergency historic designation to save the 1914 church, the namesake of German Church Road.

“I’m not anti-historic neighborhood or historic property by any stretch of the imagination,” Miller said. “I just want fairness for individuals.”

Miller said the study committee, which should begin work in July, will take a broader look at historic codes in Marion County, taking into account testimony from historic groups and residents. She wants to look at how neighborhoods are designated as historic, and why IHPC has authority over what colors houses are painted. She also wants to explore a mandatory disclosure to buyers of historic properties.

"What I’m trying to balance is individual property rights with still being able to protect neighborhoods," she said.

Marsh Davis, president of the Historic Landmarks Foundation, said he hopes the committee fosters a thoughtful dialogue on the value and vibrancy of historic neighborhoods.

“The good news is we have an opportunity right now to not have to rush something through a short session, and really look at the issues,” Davis said. “It’s apparent from the questions that have come out there’s a tremendous misunderstanding of how the IHPC operates. The fact we can now let the issue cool a bit and allow ample time for testimony on all sides will be very helpful to the process.”


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