Historic buildings

Council lays groundwork to protect special structures

“What would Chico look like without its historic buildings?”

That was one of the questions posed by a member of the public during the City Council’s regular meeting Tuesday evening (Aug. 3), as the panel conducted a public hearing to consider the implementation of a historic-preservation ordinance.

The query came from Paul Lieberum, a member of the Chico Heritage Association and the Barber Neighborhood Association, who told the council that the character of his home is what drew him to live in what is now a 100-year-old structure. Lieberum also happens to be an architect, and as such said the proposed ordinance is not cumbersome to property owners.

He was among the 26 speakers who addressed the council on this longstanding and controversial issue that has a history of its own, reaching as far back as the 1970s, when many notable Chicoans, including the late Ted Meriam and Hester Patrick, envisioned a plan to protect the city’s historic heritage.

In its current form, the plan will amend the municipal code by establishing a five-member Architectural Review and Historic Preservation Board whose purpose would be to review and make determinations on all applications of property owners seeking to carry out major alterations or demolitions of any structures listed in the city’s so-called Historical Resources Inventory—a document approved in 2009 and comprising about 260 sites.

The services of the board would also be sought for properties that meet criteria under the historic ordinance and are located within future landmark overlay zoning districts (special historic neighborhoods), though the City Council would ultimately make the final determination in those instances.

While everyone seemed to agree that Chico’s historic buildings benefit the city, the other important question posed was whether this effort overstepped the rights of property owners.

Richard Bame, who two years ago purchased a house on East Eighth Street, said the council at minimum should create an opt-out provision for residents who did not want their properties included. The idea was echoed by several others.

Earlier in the meeting, Councilman Larry Wahl noted that residents had apparently not had a say about their properties’ inclusion on the resources inventory. He asked Senior Planner Bob Summerville, the point person on the proposed ordinance, how many people had requested inclusion on the inventory since its approval. The answer: zero. Wahl also pointed out that six people had asked—though unsuccessfully—to be taken off the list.

Chicoan Arthur Lemner also put Summerville on the spot, claiming he’d tried multiple times, both by e-mail and a letter hand-delivered to the Planning Department, to have his East Sacramento Avenue home dropped from the list. He was followed by Woodland Avenue resident Doug Imhoff, who also wanted his property removed from the document.

Wahl took exception to one speaker’s analogy that the new ordinance is similar to the covenants, conditions and restrictions (CCRs) that many homeowners are familiar with. Those rules are something buyers know about when purchasing a property, he commented: “You don’t have them imposed on you after the fact.”

Other opponents were concerned about the make-up of the board and lobbied for the panel to include two laypeople. Wahl agreed with that suggestion and charged that, as proposed, the panel would be an “elitist group of people who will say we know what’s best for you.”

But Summerville said that staff recommended the qualifications remain consistent with those required by the state Office of Historic Preservation. This would allow Chico to be designated a Certified Local Government, thus providing the city with opportunities to apply for special grant funding. Homeowners, too, would stand to gain financially in the form of property-tax reductions.

During a presentation, Summerville pointed out that the ordinance would not be applicable to ordinary maintenance, such as window and door replacement, re-roofing and painting.

Councilman Andy Holcombe noted that the ordinance already includes a couple of ways that would permit certain property owners to opt out of the program. First, there is an exemption in the case of economic hardship. Second, the board has the discretion to exclude sites that do not meet the criteria for inclusion, he said.

He countered the view that the program impedes property owners’ rights. “It’s absolutely the job of government to regulate private property,” he said. “For good or bad, that’s our responsibility for the common good.”

After a couple of hours of discussion from the public and the council (excluding Vice-Mayor Tom Nickell, who was absent), the panel voted 5-1 (with Wahl dissenting) in favor of the ordinance as recommended by staff.