Apr 062015
 

Owen Courreges

If I had to write a motto for the Historic District Landmarks Commission (HDLC), it would be: “Making you kiss the ring to replace your roof.”

There are few examples of useless bureaucratic slime worse than the HDLC. This gaggle of architectural fetishists has crafted a Byzantine set of design guidelines, many of which have nothing whatsoever to do with preservation and appear specifically designed to render any renovation prohibitively expensive.

The only saving grace of the HDLC is that their authority is limited to a small number of core neighborhoods. This is kind of like saying that the saving grace of buck moth caterpillars is that they only come out in the Spring – it’s a restraint, but not exactly what I’d call a redeeming quality.

Alas, that limitation may be changing.

This past week, the city council voted on a proposal to create a “Historic Preservation Review Committee” to study whether to expand HDLC jurisdiction to Carrollton, Uptown, and Broadmoor. Not long after, the Landrieu Administration finally sent appointments to the council for a similar committee created in 2011 to explore expanding HDLC jurisdiction to Mid-City.

Cumulatively, these proposals would roughly double the HDLC’s reach. These are not incremental expansions; they’re part of a concerted effort to put most properties under the HDLC’s control. At this point, there is arguably inertia building.

A secondary question is what degree of control the HDLC will have over any new local historic districts. A “partial control” designation would only require HDLC approval for demolitions and new construction – in other words, for all infill development. A “full control” designation would require HDLC approval for everything, including routine maintenance, so the HDLC would be crammed so far up everyone’s keister that it could check for polyps.

The latter designation is obviously the most worrisome, but any expansion of HDLC jurisdiction may be viewed as a slippery slope. Once control is given, it is difficult to take it away and a cinch to push it further.

Consequently, prior to expanding the HDLC’s jurisdiction, we would be well-advised to consider reforming the HDLC itself. Presently, the HDLC’s guidelines require approval for even the most basic maintenance in local historic districts with a “full control” designation. Approval may be given at the staff level or require the assent of the whole committee.

This is excessive. First of all, routine maintenance that involves replacement-in-kind should not require any kind of rubber stamp from the HDLC. It is a grand waste of everybody’s time when a homeowner has to schedule an appointment and pay a fee for the privilege of replacing a roof or some missing siding. The work is de minimus – too inconsequential to merit regulation.

Secondly, virtually all other small projects or maintenance issues should be dealt with at the staff level, even for architecturally significant properties. If the project involves a minimal aesthetic change, or is actually an improvement, staff should be competent to make that determination on-the-spot and issue a certificate of appropriateness. Only when the property owner is proposing major changes should the full committee be consulted.

Thirdly, the HDLC needs more reasonable guidelines. Some of their standards seem to originate more from prejudice than reason. For example, I’ve noted in the past that the HDLC tries to push half-round guttering on all properties, even though it’s much more expensive and is not original to most homes in the city. In fact, there is little reason for the HDLC to be regulating guttering at all.

Likewise, the HDLC should be more receptive to allowing wood to be replaced with other materials in applications that are exposed to the elements (especially porches). It’s already commonplace and can dramatically reduce maintenance costs, thus ensuring that homes won’t fall back into blighted condition.

Finally, the HDLC needs to exercise more discretion in enforcement. The fact that somebody, somewhere, is making improvements without their stamp of approval should not, in itself, justify stopping work on a historic property. If the work being performed is something that the HDLC would have approved anyway, and there has generally been an effort to cooperate with the city, there is no need for the HDLC to march in like Eric Cartman, crowing: “Respect mah authoritah!

If these reforms were integrated, I would have far fewer reservations about expanded HDLC jurisdiction.

Alas, we are putting the cart before the horse. We are proposing to grant more power to an agency that’s as capable and coherent as Ray Nagin in a crisis. While preservation has noble goals, the nuts and bolts of achieving it need to be reasonable and mindful of the costs facing local homeowners. Until then, let’s keep the HDLC’s jurisdiction as limited as possible.

Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.

  24 Responses to “Owen Courreges: Reform the HDLC before expanding it”

  1. I could not agree more having lived in the Bywater and Marigny. Small renovations were more costly and some guidelines made no sense . For example, installing door awnings; did it matter so much they be a very specific stile when other Homes in The Marigny had many different ones. I have to say at least the staff I dealt with were fairly responsive. Expanding it would be a disaster

    • Steven,

      It really depends on who you deal with. Part of the problem you identify is that there isn’t a great deal of staff-level discretion and some of the guidelines just seem bizarre and petty.

  2. The HDLC’s guidelines are quite transparent and can be viewed by anyone on the City’s website. Please note, as stated on Facebook last week, that the HDLC no longer regulates the style of gutters and merely requires a Certificate of Appropriateness for work done. The HDLC’s guidelines went through a lengthy vetting process during which time the HDLC accepted comments on the guidelines. This would have been the appropriate time to challenge any of the guidelines or to propose changes. I suspect that even today HDLC is open to vetting substantive suggestions, as they did last year with solar panel instillations. The HDLC’s guidelines are here: http://www.nola.gov/hdlc/design-guidelines/ (Note: the guidelines do not reflect the most recent changes regarding gutters.)

    • I
      had thought it had been established in last week’s Facebook
      conversation that commission review was still required to install
      k-style gutters on significant properties. Even then, it’s troubling
      that the guidelines haven’t been properly updated.

      In
      any case, I’m still seeing some fundamental flaws with the HDLC. I
      mean, why is a Certificate of Appropriateness required at all for work
      where authorization is basically automatic? Why can’t the staff actually
      exercise discretion to approve small projects? Why are they stopping
      work that everyone in their right mind wants to continue? There are lots
      of questions here.

    • I had thought it had been established in last week’s Facebook conversation that commission review was still required to install k-style gutters on significant properties. Even then, it’s troubling that the guidelines haven’t been properly updated.

      In any case, I’m still seeing some fundamental flaws with the HDLC. I mean, why is a Certificate of Appropriateness required at all for work where authorization is basically automatic? Why can’t the staff actually exercise discretion to approve small projects? Why are they stopping work that everyone in their right mind wants to continue? There are lots of questions.

    • They definitely have policies that I disagree with… but the reason they should not be allowed to expand is because they have not been able to keep up with, or meet, the demands of the areas they currently govern. The long wait times for approvals, the zero effort to respond to emails, phone calls, or questions from homeowners about what would be appropriate for his/her house is unacceptable (first hand experience). Understaffed is not an excuse… If you were a business owner, would you expand to other locations if you were already having consistent troubles staffing your current location??? No, because that would be stupid!
      There is also no accountability. It seems that they could care less about the public that they serve, and it shows in the way they operate… Or maybe they just don’t understand that they serve the public, the people who actually live in the buildings, not just the buildings themselves.

  3. FINALLY!!!
    For years and years this privately appointed commission has PREVENTED homeowners from saving their properties from further damage.

    The HDLC is the direct cause and endangerment of preserving thousands- yes, thousands of homes because of it’s heinous and excessive “guidelines”.

    Are NOLA citizens and potential property buyers coming from outside of the City (this is our City tax base, remember) aware that the HDLC has the self-appointed power to retroactively force a new homeowner to “correct” property changes that were made by previous owners at ANY time in past history of the property.

    No grand-fathering yet no legal disclosure required to an unsuspecting buyer or owner.

    Tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars worth to make a “correction” to aspects, which are likely more beneficial than not, to a property executed 10, 20, 30, 50 years ago?

    There is no legal disclosure required by the Real Estate Commission to require sellers or realtors to divulge any potential HDLC code violations- so tell me, how is it legal for the HDLC to execute and fine owners $500/day ?

    The response from the HDLC:
    “Call the City Attorney if you question
    our authority on this matter.”

  4. Unfortunately, The public is well-aware of retribution with this organization- like so many in New Orleans- which has contributed to this important topic from making headlines or warranted the public discussion so greatly needed to make changes to this unaccountable organization.

  5. For years and years this privately appointed commission has PREVENTED homeowners from saving their properties from further damage.

    The HDLC is the direct cause and endangerment of preserving thousands- yes, thousands of homes because of it’s heinous and excessive “guidelines”.

    Are NOLA citizens and potential property buyers coming from outside of the City (this is our City tax base, remember) aware that the HDLC has the self-appointed power to retroactively force a new homeowner to “correct” property changes that were made by previous owners at ANY time in past history of the property.

    No grand-fathering yet no legal disclosure required to an unsuspecting buyer or owner.

    Tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars worth to make a “correction” to aspects, which are likely more beneficial than not, to a property executed 10, 20, 30, 50 years ago?

    There is no legal disclosure required by the Real Estate Commission to require sellers or realtors to divulge any potential HDLC code violations- so tell me, how is it legal for the HDLC to execute and fine owners $500/day ?

    The response from the HDLC:
    “Call the City Attorney if you question
    our authority on this matter.”

  6. Taxpayers and citizens of NOLA are rightfully fearful of retribution from this organization as has been evidenced- hence the lack of a thorough public discussion and much needed reform.

  7. The HDLC expansion study logically followed demolition at 820-22 General Pershing (late Berlin). Bless you boys at the ‘Uptown Messenger’ for trying to probe the political conundrum. I call the empty lot – Mount Magner because Stacy Head is still being held “hostage” to her own body politic.

  8. Owen,
    As a land use attorney of 17 years who frequently spars with the HDLC, I could not disagree with your comments more. “Useless bureaucratic slime”? Seriously??? While I agree, as is the case with many other areas of City government, that policies and procedures could be revised to make the system more user friendly, the HDLC does provide a very important role in maintaining our City’s rich architectural heritage. If not for any other reason, at a minimum, it serves as a speed bump for prospective projects (demolition and new construction) and helps ensure that we don’t wake up one morning and find that the strings woven together that make our City’s historic fabric have been frayed beyond recognition. While gutters and siding may seem insignificant to you, as someone who has invested in a stick-built home constructed in 1857, I would rather not wake up one morning to see my neighbor has demolished his similar house and is building a modern, stucco, steel and glass number next to mine. Don’t get me wrong, there are places for structures like that (I even own one somewhere else), but they don’t belong in my neighborhood, the Garden District, or even on lower St. Charles Avenue, where visitors from around the world come to view our architectural gems. While I too believe the HDLC process is a “hassle” at times, I still have it slotted more as “a necessary evil” to prevent the even more “slippery slope” of the erosion of our historic fabric, one manufactured downspout or length vinyl siding at a time.

    • Justin,

      I’m not even really discussing the issue of demolitions and new construction. I’m not entirely averse to HDLC jurisdiction over infill development; my concern is over the nit picking of basic maintenance and the adherence, at least in some cases, to irrational or overly onerous rules. I don’t think your comment really addresses that; I’m not suggesting we abolish the HDLC, but rather I’m suggesting we reel in its authority over maintenance and small projects to push the balance more in favor of homeowners at a prerequisite to expanding its jurisdiction.

  9. This tirade does not comport with my experience with the HDLC. First, staff has great authority and can handle almost everything in the “maintenance” area. Second, as to standards, I think they are based on the best practices of architects and architectural historians, They were not adopted without thought and precedent. I have heard this complaint about gutters from Owen more than I care. I guess he got burned by LAS or somebody. What other standard is controversial? Do we really want plastic and not real wood replacing wood elements on historic buildings?

  10. CORRECTION: I’ve been notified that the HDLC has changed its guidelines as to half-round guttering (but not yet updated the public guidelines online) and that they have also started to accept and process applications for certificates of appropriateness via e-mail, so an in-person visit may not be necessary.

    My opinion remains the same that low-level maintenance should not require any permitting, but it is worth noting that the HDLC has instituted some reforms in recent years. It just needs to do a great deal more to shed its reputation as an obstinate, overly-bureaucratic agency, and that work needs to be done before we expand the HDLC’s jurisdiction to new neighborhoods.

  11. Deux,

    The HDLC staff cannot generally approve any routine maintenance that would involve a change in materials, even if the new material is sturdier and identical in appearance (we aren’t talking about cheap plastic). The example of this I’ve previously cited was when I wanted to install molded concrete column bases to replace previous non-conforming bases that were rotting away (the originals had rotted away long ago). I wanted to use concrete because it would be cheaper, would look identical once painted, and would never rot again. The staff lacks the discretion to make decisions like that.

    Likewise, every place I’ve lived in here has, at some point, been retrofitted with a concrete porch and steps. It’s very common. Those elements are so prone to rot and deterioration and the aesthetic difference is minimal. However, the HDLC staff doesn’t have discretion to approve the installation of concrete porches and steps. I think that should change.

    Those are just the examples I can come up with off the top of my head. The bottom line is that the staff should have broad authority to authorize the use of different materials when there will not be a significant aesthetic change.

    • Your proposed changes were not historic. That other inappropriate changes were made in the past are the very reason for the HDLC.

      • Deux,

        My proposed changes consisted of adding guttering (which is not historic period, but something that damn well ought to be encouraged) and a change that made absolutely no aesthetic difference. There was no reasoned basis for opposing them and you have not articulated one.

        • You live in an historic district, not an “aesthetic” district. Believe it or not, you might be required to maintain something that is down right ugly.

        • The ironic thing is this – I live in the Garden District, and thanks to the Association’s maneuvering, I can have any kind of gutters I want, and any kind of porch I want.

  12. I renovated houses in an HDLC district for 12 years. The HDLC was a pain in the ass. But I also have seen what homeowners often believe to be improvements to their homes but are just plain old destruction of historic architecture. As much as I hated having to answer to HDLC, I was also grateful when I saw them deny what was a destruction of historic architecture.

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