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'Landmarking' Is One Geneva Option for Citizens Who Want to Prevent Demolition

Any citizen can landmark any property without owner consent and effectively change the owner's zoning. Looking at the details; it's not as scary as it sounds.

  • Author's Note: In the interest of full disclosure, I (Mike Bruno) sit on Geneva's Historic Preservation Commission (HPC). Opinions expressed here are my own and do not necessarily represent the postition of the HPC or the City of Geneva.

It seems our fair city has a spate of acute historic preservation issues. Most recently, two historic properties that lie outside of Geneva's treasured historic district are the subject of deliberations by two separate governmental bodies. These bodies seem to be tacking toward demolition of those structures.

The subject properties are the on Peyton Street and the on Richards Street. These are (or will be) owned by the Geneva School District and the respectively.

It is not the point of this missive to discuss the relative merits of either of those buildings (though I have already written on the Cetron building ).  Rather, I wish to discuss language in our existing ordinances that give the community an avenue to protect any building within its boundaries should the citizenry be sufficiently motivated and a case for protection sufficiently compelling.

I refer to "local landmarking" which, in a nutshell, can be applied to a property outside the historic district and put it within the purview of the Historic Preservation Commission (HPC). Once landmarked, exterior changes that require a city permit would have to come before the HPC for review before that permit can be issued. ...and demolition requires a city permit.

Some residents outside of the HPC have already expressed interest in the landmarking process for the Coultrap building, and it has made me [re]ponder what it means to the community and the property owner to be landmarked ... at least in terms of protecting a property.

Some of you may recall that in August\September of last year there was a public and boisterous discussion about the language in city ordinance that specifically states that no owner consent is required for a community or even an individual citizen to landmark a property or properties. I spoke my piece before the Comittee of the Whole (which is a completely different and wholly separate body than the City Council ... except it is all the same people and they meet in the same place.  Don't ask.) You can scan down to Exhibit C on page 9 to see what I said.

In the end, the City Council voted to maintain the existing language not requiring owner consent because it was not a real threat, supported preservation, was consistent with our city identity, its removal addressed a problem that didn't exist, and could cause us problems down the line. This "no owner consent" landmarking language is perceived to be the "nuclear option" by many and reading it (especially out of context) it seems uber-Draconian; that any citizen could swoop in and influence the zoning\restrictions on your property.  That seems really scary. "Can't my neighbor stop me from putting up the new garage on their personal whim?" a hypothetical property owner might say. "Probably not" is what I say.

First, the process of establishing a landmark is fairly time consuming, costs are shouldered by the petitioner, and a real, compelling case needs to be made that the subject property is genuinely historic and valuable. There are somewhat objective standards that set a pretty high bar as to what will be considered for landmarking. These standards might include architectural integrity, notable architect\builder, important historical event, etc. What is NOT a compelling argument for landmarking is for the petitioner to say they really, really, really, really like the subject building. Likewise, saying that change\demolition to the building would be really, really, really, really annoying to the petitioner.

Second, landmarking is not a large, irrevocable, scarlet "NO" on any property or project. In the case of a building threatened with demolition, it simply means that a thorough analysis of preservation\re-use must be undertaken prior to the permit being issue. If the case can be made that the property cannot be viable under the present or potential owner, then demolition would likely be approved ... landmarked or not. The city nor the Historic Preservation Commission sees little value in a vacant, derelict building ... historic or not.

What concerns me with Coultrap and Cetron is that the School Board and Library Board members, respectively, may have made up their minds without exhausting re-use options. Will the citizenry take such an initiative to make sure that the buildings aren't destroyed in haste? I would prefer a civil dialogue between those boards and those affected rather than unilateral landmarking action, but I would support that action if that were necessary to make sure adaptive re-use were thoroughly and thoughtfully considered. The School Board, to its credit, is hosting two . (Unfortunately, committments keep me from attending either of those meetings.)

So, will the public pull out the "nuclear option"? They can't because one does not exist. Will the public make sure that re-use options have been considered? Time will tell, but they will have to make a serious case. Will landmarking save a Coultrap or a Cetron? It's not a guarantee, but at least you have an option be sure that preservation options were exhausted first.

Information on the landmarking process can be found on the city's website.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Mike Bruno June 20, 2012 at 04:05 PM
Awwww....Rick! I was partial to the nuclear bomb for the feature pic! :-)
Mike Bruno June 20, 2012 at 07:01 PM
Published just hours too soon!! I was just informed by city staff that a group of citizens proximate to Coultrap is pursuing local landmarking of the school in an effort to make sure that re-use options have been thoroughly considered. They are still in the information/history-gathering stage. Once filed, a process taking no more than 120 days (including and HPC review, report, public hearings) ending in a vote by the City Council begins. During that time, no changes or demolition can occur.
Mike Bruno June 21, 2012 at 02:17 AM
As a point of clarification: I said I would "support that action", meaning the landmarking *process* undertaken by a citizen or citizens . This is different from supporting the *case made* by those citizens. I cannot predict my HPC vote until I hear the case made by the petitioner. ...and I am not known for being the most *empathetic* on such matters.
Bob McQuillan June 21, 2012 at 03:18 AM
That seems really scary. "Can't my neighbor stop me from putting up the new garage on their personal whim?" a hypothetical property owner might say. "Probably not" is what I say. As a property owner, "probably not," doesn't seem scary, it is scary. The author would not have written this article if he didn't have an agenda on both of these properties. Just maybe the HPC is starting to grab for more control of decisions which should be the right of the property owner. Are you the next property owner that they will target? "Probably not"
Mike Bruno June 21, 2012 at 03:56 AM
@Bob McQuillan: Please give me more detail on my "agenda" and my motives. I would be curious to know what you think it is.
Justin Eggar June 21, 2012 at 04:18 AM
It's obvious Mike. You like old properties "and stuff". I am not sure that I like the current language that you described re: ciy ordinance. It sounds fairly subjective... Can you guarantee that the process has objectivity built in so that it can't be utilized incorrectly? You mentioned objectivity in your piece but then followed it with "might include...", which detracts from the solidity of the statement. That said, I am all for due diligence that will ensure that financial and historical implications are taken into account as government properties are modified.
Bob McQuillan June 21, 2012 at 05:04 AM
Mike Your actions and writings over the last few months reveal what your agenda is ... you believe the HPC should be involved in all decisions of "older" properties in Geneva. The scary thing is that "older" is not well defined. Don't know how the HPC is structured but you seem to be the public spokesman of the commission, which isn't all that bad. At least people know where you stand. You aren't a big supporter of property owners rights, unless you and your group has a say that is.
Mike Bruno June 21, 2012 at 01:15 PM
@Justin: Like any public deliberative body like City Council, Zoning Board, or HPC, there are well defined points of analysis (i.e. "notable architect or builder"), but there is necessarily some subjectivity in determining whether a given architect or builder is "notable". That is why such elected/appointed bodies have a fairly large number of members. A majority of those bodies have to be convinced of the case and is not individual personal whim and each member brings their own perspective. It's a pretty good process. If it were all purely objective, then we could have computer programs replace all out deliberative bodies.
Mike Bruno June 21, 2012 at 01:45 PM
The HPC is made up of seven members with chairperson that they select from amongst themselves. The Chairperson (Scott Roy), runs the meetings and is usually the go-to person for the press to contact for statements. The HPC is an advisory body to the City Planner (Dick Untch) via the Preservation Planner (Karla Kaulfus). Geneva, having a registered historic district, is required to maintain the commission. I, personally, have been on the HPC for something like 11 years. In that time I have certainly refined my opinions and wished to dispel myths and promote facts about preservation and what it means for Geneva. I make it very clear that I am not a voice for HPC. Indeed, I do not discuss, solicit or involve city staff of the commission in any of my writings here. I write this as a citizen that has an opinion about the value of preservation in the city of Geneva and beyond. Now if you wish to start casting misguided stones and say the HPC is uniquely opposed to property rights, then you need to think a little longer. Your argument is a red herring since we all live under lots and lots of restrictions that go against "property rights". Long ago, the *community* decided that it supports historic preservation. Look at our downtown. That landscape would be vastly different (and very likely dead, IMO) were it not for the decades of thoughtful preservation. Every study shows that property values increase and economic vitality is enhanced when we protect our history.
Bob McQuillan June 21, 2012 at 06:14 PM
I don't mind the "community" supporting historic preservation and the downtown is a wonderful example. But now, through the landmark process, some are looking to extend the historic district to basically include all of Geneva. That is where things get hairy and scary. Now, a property that isn't in the historic district, is subject to the whims of any resident. You say it "probably won't happen." I say "why do we even allow the possibility." You are hiding behind the "lots and lots of restrictions" that are necessary and in place like zoning. Landmarking is much different than zoning regulations. Changing the rules after a property is owned or placing needless restrictions is a violation of the owner's property rights. I'll say it again, you want to save Coultrap then you are more than welcome. Just pay for the renovation and upkeep through a private foundation, not tax dollars. This type of arrangement happens throughout the country.
Mike Bruno June 22, 2012 at 02:22 AM
I am in Wisconsin and I can hear your cognitive dissonance from here. Am I to understand that the community supporting preservation in place 'A' is good. But the community supporting preservation in place 'B' is bad. I imagine back in 1979 there was quite an outcry from residents that didn't want to be in an historic district. Fortunately some forward thinkers created our historic district that is now the envy of Illinois and beyond and the city's defining jewel.
Bob McQuillan June 22, 2012 at 02:59 AM
Mike Let me make this perfectly clear for you so there is no dissonance. Place 'B' wants the taxpayers to pay for the renovation. Place 'A' is already designated a historic area and taxpayer money isn't being used. The school district raises revenue through property taxes. Why should everyone's taxes pay to renovate a building that will no longer be a publicly used building? Don't say move the admin.offices there because then the residents around the 4th street school will want that building landmarked. We are looking at a vicious circle. The city should not get involved in a decision that is up to the owners of Coultrap, the school board who has been elected to represent the entire community. The school board is responsible to do what is right for the entire community, not any one group. There is a better solution then filing for landmark status and taking the decision out of the property owner's hand.
DG June 22, 2012 at 03:24 AM
No. That is way too much power and potential for abuse.
M Marx June 22, 2012 at 11:07 AM
So, Mr. McQuillan, " the school board who has been elected to represent the entire community. The school board is responsible to do what is right for the entire community, not any one group." Let me understand...this principle of governance which you espouse applies to the Preservationist goup, but not to the Taxfacts group?
Mike Bruno June 22, 2012 at 01:07 PM
What I keep coming back to in my mind, Bob, is that back in 1979 or so the community elected to landmark a large swath of homes...buildings not for public use. And it was an unambiguous win for the community. Every one of those privately owned homes in the district was landmarked and not necessarily with owner consent. In the case of a Coultrap or a Cetron, it is the same as designating a mini-district. Your argument seems to say it was a good idea then, but a bad idea now. Anyway, we are probably talking past each other and I don't really even have a solid opinion on the specific merits of the Coultrap building. I don't want this to go down the rabbit hole...if it already hasn't.
Bob McQuillan June 22, 2012 at 03:16 PM
GenevaTaxFACTS has never tried to take a vote out of the hands of the school board. This is exactly what would happen if the building is landmarked. The city of Geneva, which should not be involved in this issue, could decide to landmark the building and then the school board's hands would be tied. GenevaTaxFACTS has tried to educate the community on the actions of the school board and the results of those actions. We advocate for a quality education at an affordable cost to the community. There is a MAJOR difference between expressing your opinion and taking away the school board's ability to vote on any topic.
Kate Bochte June 24, 2012 at 11:16 PM
There is a MAJOR difference between expressing your opinion and bullying, harassment, intimidation, and leveling baseless allegations of fraud, corruption, and intentional deception against elected representatives.
Bob McQuillan June 25, 2012 at 02:32 PM
Yea, Kate whatever you say must be true.

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