A timely push to preserve Bainbridge history

If history repeats itself, then the city may not have an early history to preserve much longer.

In light of the continuing debate surrounding the proposed demolition or relocation of a 104-year-old house on Ericksen Avenue, preservationsist, city councilors and city staff are wondering if it is time to make historic preservation mandatory.

At stake, claim members of the city’s Historic Preservation Commission, are roughly 390 island buildings that are listed as historic, 20 of which were demolished in the past two years.

“The city’s Comprehensive Plan and Municipal Code demands preservation of historic buildings. But it doesn’t say how to preserve them,” council member Debbie Vancil said. “We have an ordinance in place, but we knew the ordinance had no teeth from the beginning.”

The city’s Comprehensive Plan calls for “guidelines that will identify and preserve historic and cultural resources” of the island.

To support that aim, the Historic Preservation Program was adopted into the city’s Municipal Code (chapter 18.76) in 2004.

The program establishes a citizen-based Historic Preservation Commission, which works to monitor, document and oversee the island’s historic treasures.

Destruction or modification of a historic structure must be approved by the commission, However, failing to receive approval merely results in the delisting of a building as “historic.”

This week, members of the Land Use Committee targeted the code’s inability to regulate preservation and considered possible solutions.

“Other municipalities, they have faced the same challenges of property owners realizing the value of their land and the community realizing the value of its history,” Vancil said.

One idea was to mandate and regulate the preservation of historic homes.

That, said city Planning Director Kathy Cook, would take a lot of work to analyze the legality and feasibility of enforcing such an ordinance.

“If the city choose to do a mandatory program, that would be quite complicated,” Cook said. “Standards for history and preservation need to be set, that can be controversial because that restricts a person’s property.”

Currently, the municipal code outlines a broad range of what can be described as “historic.” Generally it is any structure, site or object that is at least 50 years in age. However, a long list of exceptions to that rule include considerations of location, design, historic events and almost anything that can be considered a part of the island’s heritage. That could create a legal minefield if the current program became mandatory.

Council members also discussed increasing the financial incentives for property owners to create a more free-market approach to preservation.

The city already has a small incentives program regulating downtown historic structures. Currently, the floor area of a historic home will not count towards zoning limitations on property, allowing for denser development.

But that doesn’t always keep the march of progress at bay.

“That (incentive) allows people to build around (a historic structure) or behind it, but depending on the site that is not always feasible,” Cook said.

Gaps in incentives and regulations were agreed to be the shortfall in the city’s attempts to preserve history.

According to council member Hilary Franz, the city needs to look at successful preservation programs to adopt the correct approach on Bainbridge.

“It’s not going to be easy, but I don’t think we have to start from scratch,” she said. “We can look at other cities with preservation ordinances, how they worked on the ground and how that language was vetted through the courts.”

Franz said any regulated preservation would likely include incentives, regulation and educational outreach.

The Land Use Committee agreed to look at its options during the 2009 session, However, some thought the action would come too late to save the few remaining historic homes on Ericksen Avenue.

“I think the horse has left the barn,” council member Bill Knobloch said. “The law is the law and we made a mistake when we created it.”

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