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Historic house divided

Living in a historic district means charming houses, good land values and an architectural review board that can cost a lot of money trying to please.

By CINDY RUPERT
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 22, 2002


TAMPA -- You hope to put a fence around your house to keep the puppy safe. What's the best way to proceed?

[Times photo: Stefanie Boyar]
New Suburb Beautiful resident Tim Condon and his wife, Michelle, think their unusual mirrored Dutch front door likely wouldn't have passed muster if a review board had a say it in. That's why they oppose making their neighborhood a historic district.
Plan A: Have the fence of your choice installed this weekend.

Plan B: Hire an architect to design a fence. Introduce the architect to a city historic preservation expert. Pay $100 for a city review. Pay the architect to revise the plan. Appear on live television to defend the plan. Pay for another revision. Keep the dog inside for a month. Go on TV again, architect in tow.

If you're on the fence about whether to live in one of Tampa's four local historic districts, meet Leroy Chatman of Tampa Heights and Michael O'Keefe of Hyde Park.

In September, Chatman spent $1,200 on a chain-link fence, unaware that the city's Architectural Review Commission prohibits them in historic Tampa Heights. Early last year, O'Keefe installed a PVC fence outside his Hyde Park home, also against the rules.

Both men ran afoul of the commission, an experience shared by scores of other homeowners who endure special restrictions because they live in Tampa's oldest neighborhoods.

Residential and commercial property owners in Hyde Park, Seminole Heights, Tampa Heights and Ybor City must seek approval before they build, demolish or change the exterior of their buildings. The Architectural Review Commission oversees all of those districts except Ybor City, which falls under the purview of the Barrio Latino ("Latin Neighborhood") Commission.

For their trouble, preservationists say they enjoy higher property values, tax benefits and charming old neighborhoods.

Opponents say the review process takes too long, tramples property rights and discriminates against low-income residents.

Second-guessing owners

Residents with disputed fences aren't the only ones who feel hemmed in.

The ARC nixed Norma Gene Burr's plans for a contemporary glass art studio and garage behind her home on Orleans Avenue last year, saying it was too modern for historic Old Hyde Park. The commission asked David Waller to redo the work he did without permission on a crumbling house on Southview Avenue in 1999.

George Meyer put in so much time before the board during his restoration of a Hyde Park house that he decided never to do it again. Meyer, a former University of South Florida faculty member, moved to Palma Ceia, which is free from such oversight.

"When the Hyde Park district first formed, the rules were not strict," Meyer says. "But it's become tighter and tighter, and now it's unreasonable.

"They're picking nits. They're causing delays."

The rules and delays that go with owning a piece of history intrude on private property rights, giving local government too much power over people, says 10-year New Suburb Beautiful resident Tim Condon.

In many cases, they are people who never asked for the rules, he says.

"There is no provision for a vote of the neighborhood," says Condon, who fears that his unusual mirrored Dutch front door wouldn't have passed muster in a fine-toothed-comb historical review.

"Anybody who's in favor of a historic district is stone crazy," he says.

Fighting back

Condon and some of his neighbors are opposing efforts to declare New Suburb Beautiful a historic district. New Suburb and the adjacent Parkland Estates are two of several neighborhoods -- including one east of Ybor City and another west of Tampa Heights -- that city officials want to bring into the fold.

Parkland Estates residents also plan to fight, says Mike Echevarria, president of the Parkland Estates Civic Club Inc.

"We don't have any interest in creating another layer of bureaucracy," he says.

Chatman says he never had a chance to protest the designation in Tampa Heights.

His saga began in 1999, when he moved onto Morgan Street with his wife, Gloria, and their two children. The next year, Tampa Heights turned historic.

Then, in September, Chatman decided that he'd had enough of police chasing suspects through his yard and people stealing his garden hoses and plants. He says he called the city's code enforcement office to make sure he could install a fence in his yard.

"They told me I didn't need a permit to put up a fence," he says. "They said I could put up a chain link fence four feet high."

The Architectural Review Commission soon summoned him to a meeting, and then to another meeting.

The commission tried to persuade him to take down the fence, an effort supported by the Tampa Heights Civic Association.

Chatman is due back at the ARC later this spring.

He put dog ownership on hold.

Across the street, there's a daily reminder of life before the historic district: his neighbor's chain-link fence, grandfathered in, unchallenged by the ARC.

"How can you tell me that fence is historic and this fence is not?" he wonders.

He wishes someone had asked him whether he wanted a historic district.

"Evidently, we didn't have a voice in this," he says.

How it begins

Historic districts usually form because homeowners ask for them. They petition the city's Historic Preservation Commission, which responds by taking an inventory of half-century-old buildings. Roughly two-thirds of buildings in a neighborhood must be 50 years old for the designation to be approved.

Less frequently -- as in the case of New Suburb Beautiful and Parkland Estates -- the commission initiates the process.

Next, the Tampa City Council takes over, holding public hearings and voting whether to establish the district.

If the answer is yes, everything changes.

Authority shifts from the Historic Preservation Commission to appointed citizen panels charged with enforcing historic guidelines. Those review boards -- the Architectural Review Commission and the Barrio Latino Commission -- become such a part of neighborhood life that residents quickly learn their acronyms, the ARC and the BLC.

"Most people are complimentary about our design input," says Antonio Amadeo, the ARC's vice president. "Tampa has an excellent program. It's done a lot of good."

For home buyers, historic districts ensure architectural continuity, says South Tampa real estate agent Toni Everett.

"Some buyers don't want old homes and don't want to go through the review," Everett says. "But if they are in love with antiquity and are purists, they don't care about the difficulty they have to go through to get something approved."

Preservation was worth the price for Harriet and Philip Plyler.

The Plylers bought on Willow Avenue in 1983, renovated and won a banner award from Tampa Preservation Inc., a private, not-for-profit group that honors preserved homes.

Better resale value

For 18 years, they lovingly maintained the home, where two prominent Tampa families had lived -- the Curtis Hixon family and the Cuesta cigar family.

Recently, they put the house on the market.

"People just streamed through the house," Harriet Plyler says. "The fact that it was a restored historic house made it easy to sell."

The designation pays off in other ways.

Property owners who rehabilitate a building in a historic district don't have to pay ad valorem taxes for 10 years, notes the city's business and community services director, Fernando Noriega.

Historic designation increases property values, he says, although critics counter that land values often are already on the rise.

Despite the benefits, Noriega concedes that historic districts can make life tough for people of limited means.

"Although I'm a proponent of historic districts, I'm a little concerned that these districts may be popping up in areas where it hurts low income individuals who need affordable houses," he says.

"I just don't think that historic preservation is the answer for all neighborhoods."

The city offers alternatives.

One, a "conservation district," provides fewer and less-stringent design rules. Instead of going before the ARC or BLC, homeowners get guidance from city staff, a process that is less costly and less time-consuming.

Another, an "overlay district," ensures that new buildings are compatible with existing structures, without all the regulations of a historic district. One example: the SoHo district along South Howard Avenue.

Search for fairness

Neither of those alternatives offered hope to O'Keefe and Chatman, whose neighborhoods had already surrendered to the forces of preservation.

O'Keefe, the man who erected the PVC fence in Hyde Park, got off the hook.

[Times photo: Thomas M. Goethe]
Leroy Chatman spent $1,200 on a chain-link fence, unaware that the city's Architectural Review Commission prohibits them in historic Tampa Heights. Preservationists say such reviews preserve property values, while opponents say they hurt low-income residents.
Board members recently voted on whether to let him keep his fence. When the vote tied, it looked like he would have to wait another month for a decision. But in an unusual move, ARC member Amadeo changed his vote to allow the fence.

"I didn't want this to be dragged on another month," Amadeo says. "It was in the back and you really couldn't see it. I felt that being fair is important."

The ARC may even add vinyl to its list of approved materials, he says.

Leroy Chatman's chain link fence is not likely to make the list.

"A chain link fence is not appropriate," Amadeo says, noting that the city was working with Chatman to reach a "fair resolution."

"It has to be fair," he says, "but it also has to be appropriate."

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