In an attempt to stave off legal challenges to decisions made by the Neighborhood Conservation District Committee, the City Council voted Thursday to strip the body of its ability to authorize or prohibit demolitions in many old neighborhoods of New Orleans.The reason the NCDC (or NCDCAC now) had to be altered was because of this situation we described earlier where any person (or development company) with the means to afford a legal challenge would be granted permission to demolish properties anyway. Meanwhile review boards like NCDC could still demand that some property owners preserve their buildings.... so long as such persons don't have the resources to challenge their authority.
The new rules and procedures for the 6-year-old committee will allow it only to make recommendations to the council, which will decide each property’s fate.
The move essentially shifts the committee, to be renamed the Neighborhood Conservation District Advisory Committee, to the legislative side of government. Property owners who had turned to the courts to appeal the body’s decisions recently argued that it was improperly housed in the executive branch and its decisions therefore were not legally binding, council President Stacy Head said.
Owners always had the right to appeal to City Council, but now it looks like that's where all the decisions will be made. How will that change the dynamic? Well, if we take this exchange at face value*, not much at all.
Doris Tuckson and her family, which inherited the house, want to see it torn down and the site scraped clean. Tuckson appeared before the council seeking a demolition permit Thursday. The family does not have the money to fix it up, and they don't want to sell, she said.So if you happen to inherit an historic property you can't deal with, be ready to face an inquisition. How sick is your sister, really? Where's the death certificate?
The Neighborhood Conservation District Committee, which, for the time being, controls demolition permits in conservation districts, had previously denied a request to clear the property, forcing her to seek the council's blessing.
Tuckson said that the house has been vacant since Hurricane Katrina and conceded that she and her family had no intention of moving back into the place.
Councilwoman Stacy Head, a stalwart voice for preservation on the council, said that the prospect of demolishing the the house was "frightening." Preservation is a responsibility property owners have to current and future residents, she said.
Head peppered Tuckson with questions about why the family had let the house fall into disrepair rather than fix it up or sell it to someone who could.
Tuckson said that her sister had been in charge of managing the property but fell sick and died, leaving little records about the property and no plan for how to move forward to repair it. In short, she said, the family members did not have the wherewithal to restore the property.
Councilwoman Nadine Ramsey was furious that Head would dictate what Tuckson and her family could do with their property. She also implied that the council was being inconsistent, noting that it had voted recently to allow the demolition of a property on Webster Street. "We have allowed demolitions historically regardless of the talk about historic preservation," she said.And that there is just how screwed up this whole business is. We've arrived at a point where, "People are more important than property," is somehow a "Tea Party" position. And still we're left with a situation where people are told, if you can't afford the time, expertise, and money required to preserve your "historic" building** then your best option is to sell out to someone who can. It's basically a recipe for gentrification. But one where historic properties get demolished anyway so long as the owner can afford to get that done. So I still don't understand how this NCDC reform is going to change that.
As the debate escalated, it moved from a discussion of the property in question toward a broader debate about the city's rights and responsibilities when it comes to preservation.
Ramsey said that families that don't have the means to care for a property ought to be able to demolish it rather than be forced to sell it.
There's a lot of talk about the value of property to the neighborhood, but what about the people who actually own it, she said. Ramsey said she believes in preservation, but not at the expense of forcing people to with little to no means to sell their property, she said. "People are more important than property," Ramsey said.
Head said that Ramsey's position, that personal property rights should trump the rights of the community, is typical of a Tea Party member or a Libertarian. When coming from the council member whose district boasts some of the most historic neighborhoods in the city, it's a cause for concern.
* "If we take this exchange at face value..." It turns out that there's another side to the legal challenges to the NCDC process involving one particular lawyer and a demolition company which I'm hoping we'll see more about if this argument continues. The point is, there are several angles to every scam because.. well.. "it's Chinatown" and such. My primary concern, though, is with the inequitable gentrifying effect of the entire process.
** Many of the properties bearing "historic" designations are themselves shotguns or cottages originally built to house poor people uncomfortably. But now we have New Orleans East and, increasingly, Metairie for that.