What's HARC Got To Do With It?

For cities with Historic Districts it is common practice to have a set of design guidelines that govern exterior work to buildings that are in the district and a review body that determines whether proposed work meets the rules that have been set forth. If you have a property or a business in an historic district you usually have to have a special approval certificate before you can have a building permit. You submit an application that demonstrates the nature of your project and you appear in a hearing to talk about it, and the board makes a decision. If they say yes, you can check that box and proceed with the administrative process of getting your permit.

This power - to approve of disapprove of whether the project meets the adopted standards - is a legislative power, which means an elected body is the default review body (i.e. City Council). The elected body, if they don’t want to make those decisions, can appoint a board or commission and delegate that responsibility to them. This can be a Planning & Zoning Commission, a Historic Preservation Commission or whatever name and specifically defined purpose suits the City.

The City of Georgetown’s Historic and Architectural Review Commission (HARC) has a longstanding tradition of being difficult to work with - not unlike many similar appointed boards and commissions across Texas. The accusations from building, business and home owners have been pretty consistent for years that the appointed board is difficult to get approvals from, difficult to work with, arbitrary in their decisions and too slow in their reviews. As a long-time Georgetown resident I’ve heard the complaints for years, so it was not a surprise to me when Georgetown’s City Council decided to consider taking back the authority they had delegated to HARC. But it’s a rare move in my experience, and taking away an appointed group’s delegated powers can stir up local politics like nothing else. It has in Georgetown.

Community Impact and the Austin American-Statesman have published articles covering the specifics, but it can be summed up as this: some people are unhappy with the process or their perception of the process and want the process to change. Enough people are aware of the organizational problems that there is support for change, but no one has yet identified what the problems are and how to most successfully address them. However, the website Old Town, Georgetown Texas was keeping score until 2012 by posting detailed and unofficial minutes of HARC meeting activity.

Preservation Georgetown isn’t doing their part to clarify the conflict, only offering “PG disagrees with this proposal because:

  • The historic assets of Georgetown must be protected.

  • We are what we are and who we are because of our history and the historical structures that represent our community to those who live here, visit here, and do business here.

  • HARC isn’t broken, why “fix” it?

  • HARC is structured to ensure appropriate knowledge and balanced perspectives to review and approve or deny historic district COA’s

  • City Council is not the optimal decision body on historical considerations

And that’s a really critical part of this issue. The self-identified preservationists are not making a valid argument for why HARC is a necessary part of Historic Preservation policy in Georgetown.

If there is a policy in place, someone will not like it. When people enforce policy, there will be inconsistencies in the application of the policy. For policy to be successful it needs to be 1) clear and specific and 2) solve a real problem or address a real issue 3) be able to be distilled so that the people who are impacted by the policy can understand and access it.

What might really be at issue here is that appointed commissions who review applications for work in historic districts are often not provided with sufficient education or training to perform the responsibilities they’ve been tasked with. HARC deals with permitting and zoning issues, and someone who really likes old buildings or who even has designed a number of homes or historic home remodels may not have sufficient knowledge to respond to the challenges that are sometimes presented in these applications. When there are design guidelines in place there is no way around the role that perspective and preference play in determining what is “appropriate”. And if the appointed members don’t always have the resources and information they need to do their job, neither to the property owners or developers who are submitting these projects for review, or who don’t think that the rules need to apply to them.

The education component - for both sides of the application and for the public, is perpetually overlooked. If an applicant doesn’t meet the requirements, they need clear and specific direction on how they can, not a “no” or even less helpful and not constructive criticism. If an appointee doesn’t know the laws governing what they are doing and the standards against which they have to weight project applications, the City needs to make sure they do, or that another person who can understand is appointed instead. Cities need to be proactive in these cases, because positioning to be reactive creates some great drama for the news, but not great policy for our cities.

We like to help cities, businesses and property owners make good decisions for the future. If you have questions about managing historic districts or how to go through an application process, email britin@stewardshipstrategies.com