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Monday, July 24, 2006

Local Historic Ordinances Require Education

One issue that constantly comes before the city's Preservation Board is that of the contractor ignorant of the city's local historic district ordinances. Time and time again, residents are caught by neighbors or building inspectors having just installed vinyl or glass block windows, clad cornices in aluminum, reconfigured double entrances with one doorway or some other violation of the ordinances (and often of good taste) and without a permit.

When brought to the Cultural Resources Office for adjudication, the homeowners usually appeal their cases to the Preservation Board. The most common defense used by these building owners is that their contractors assured them that the work was legal. (For now, I'll leave aside the aesthetic issues involved in dreadful remodeling projects.) Contractors routinely flaunt historic district ordinances out of ignorance. Building owners are equally ignorant, and don't think to question the words of trusted professionals.

While the volume of these cases is moderate, perhaps some education is in order to prevent this routine occurrence as much as that is possible. It's clear that contractors are not required to know about local historic district ordinances in order to get licensed in Missouri. That could change by requiring knowledge of the ordinances by contractors who want to work in the city.

Building owner education is also in order. Many people are not aware of the restrictions of the ordinances, nor of the benefits of local and national historic district status that allows them to use state historic tax credits for rehab work. Perhaps the city government would be interested in creating an educational program for this purpose under the Cultural Resources Office. While property owners often have only themselves to blame, the number of historic district ordinances is growing, and the ordinances themselves aren't always clear to people who lack familiarity with building materials and architectural jargon. It's easy for people observing a Preservation Board hearing to sympathize with property owners who wrongly removed wooden windows to install vinyl ones with aluminum wrapping on the brick-mold. The enforcement of the ordinances seems punitive rather than supportive, and education could be key to changing public perception.

Of course, even better would be a basic citizen's course in property ownership covering historical designations, basic architectural information, building and zoning codes, home repair and financial planning. That's a big and expensive program, so for now I'd be content to see the city try to provide better education about historic district ordinances.


Robert Powers said...

Based on my limited but slowly growing experience, I doubt the contractors are actually ignorant of these laws. More likely they just figure they can ignore them, because that's how they prefer to do business.

Well. I should clarify that to me "contractor" means "general contractor", whereas you're probably thinking of lots of small operators, guys who hang vinyl siding or whatever. I suppose it's possible that those guys genuinely don't know what's up. But a major building company knows the laws. They just do things their own way because that's the way they work -- same way they ignore architect's drawings at times.

Urban Review said...

We need education on the aesthetics as well -- I don't live in a historic district but I want someone to think twice before they remove their wood windows and install ill-fitting vinyl windows with those silly plastic inserts to immitate smaller panes of glass or replacing their front doors with the latest garish Home Depot creation.

We need people to understand the aesthetic issues because otherwise they'll all get upset when they can't do the changes they'd be able to in their front-garage ranch in the county.

If care is taken a vinyl window can be tolerable in non-historic areas but most of these contractor out of a truck types just don't the difference. They'll slap in the window and throw up some aluminum wrap around it and because it is new and not peeling it most likely look better than what it replaced.

Both the Building Div and Cultural Resources websites could do a much better job of explaining issues to the citizens.

See you Monday!

Anonymous said...

I've never understood why realtors aren't required to provide this information to buyers.

Anonymous said...

I don't understand how Cultural Resources can complain if the Building Division issues a permit. If our City's divisions aren't even talking with one another, how can we blame an owner for not asking his hired professional the right questions?!

Anonymous said...

"I don't understand how Cultural Resources can complain if the Building Division issues a permit."

Can't happen. The permit form requires a CRO initial.


Joe said...

PE is correct. And typically, CRO has somebody on "hot spot" duty at Building for plan reviews. Also one of the regular plan reviewers at Building, Tim Klaas, used to work at CRO. Until 1999, both CRO (then called the Heritage & Urban Design Commission) and Building were part of the Dept. of Public Safety. Building still is, but CRO is part of PDA now.

The problems mainly come with stuff that outside a Local Historic District would not require a permit at all - like window replacement.

But the following page on the Building Division web site is, I think, pretty clear on this point:

When Do I Need A Building Permit

It states the following:

However property located within a City Historic District or is a City Landmark requires approval of exterior painting, gutters and downspouts, windows, doors, tuckpointing, all fences, awning and canopies and similar exterior work. In most instances a building permit is required by the Cultural Resources Office even though it is not required by the Building Code. This is done to protect the exterior appearance of the building. Copies of design standards for the 14 historic districts or 112 landmarks can be obtained by contacting the Cultural Resources Office at (314) 622-3400 or from the Register's Office in City Hall.