Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Wilm. City Council Votes to Deny Property Rights

Last night's Wilmington City Council meeting included a much ballyhooed revision to the city's Land Development Code in the Central Business District downtown, which will in effect curb the rights of property owners for the sake of historic preservation. The new rules pile heaps of regulations, penalties, and red tape onto already over-burdened property owners in the sacred Central Business District and historic overlay areas of downtown Wilmington. Buildings, whose owners may deem them eyesores, dangerous, or simply have plans of demolishing them in order to construct new development and new economic activity; must first comply with the bureaucratic process of determining the historic implications of the building, of which will spell out the outcome of its status.

In the ever-present pursuit of manipulating facts with patronization and misinformation, City Manager Sterling Cheatham refers to the resolution as a "citizen-initiated preservation ordinance"; as if it were the people of Wilmington whose wishes suddenly had unprecedented relevance in the affairs of City Hall. In truth, it was initiated by the boards of the Historic Wilmington Foundation, and Wilmington Downtown, Inc. (WDI); two exclusive clubs of highbrow downtown socialites, whose concerns usually involve matters such as whether to use gold or silver embossing on this year's invitations to the finest social gala of the season.

However, these groups exhibit incredible control over the regulations concerning downtown Wilmington; and they like to throw their weight around. WDI, positions itself as an "economic development" organization - that ubiquitous distinction that garners both praise and awe from government insiders, regardless of merit, performance, accomplishment, or activity. The mere mention of the term inspires local elected leaders to become almost giddy with willingness to hand over large sums of taxpayer money to their efforts, regardless of any measurable or identifiable metric of economic development.

The historic preservation ordinance, which passed council's first reading, and will resurface for a second in the near future, was notably rejected by the city's Planning Commission, whose role is to identify and support positive growth and development strategies for the city's future. Their stamp of rejection signals a concern that the added government red tape will inhibit growth.

The preservation resolution also empowers the Historic Preservation Commission directly over a property owner's fate with regard to his/her property. In an incredible shift of power, a property owner who owns a building located within the district and identified as having a historic designation, must appeal to the unelected Historic Preservation Commission to attempt to have the status removed. The Commission may approve or reject the request based on a complicated scorecard that considers the historical significance of the structure.

The new rules offer building height as a carrot to be dangled in front of developers for their compliance with the various aspects of the new regulations. It is even being called "incentivizing"; although the only incentive to be gained is further restriction - but to a lesser degree. However, as is usually the case, government proves disconnected with real-world reality. Several downtown investor/land owners demonstrate the futility of the so-called incentives as recorded in the minutes of the Wilmington Planning Commission's meeting in which support for the new regulations was denied:

Mr. Darryl Barker, architect downtown, stated he has an issue with the added bonus height. A picture was shown about how it would work, but when you get into the actual constructability of some of the setbacks, it is economically unfeasible to do. It is also a problem from a Code standpoint. There’s probably 5 or 6 issues that come into play in building a high-rise which is anything over 75’ to the highest occupied level. One you get above that, the building becomes a high-rise. Therefore, you’re limited to just one extra floor of construction before you get up to the 100’ height limit. There’s really not going to be an incentive for someone to do that when considering the added cost that will be incurred by getting up to that height. He pointed out that a one-story building with good walls and a good roof, if it’s classified, it will forever remain a one-story building. Having a one-story building in the CBD is not economically sound. He is the owner of a one-story buildings on the list and it sits back about 45’ from the street. If he was to tear down that building, nothing could be built in its place. He felt there should be more input from stakeholders and architects to help make it a better process. 
Mr. Todd Toconis stated he is a homeowner. He focused on two properties that he owns or owned. The first is 108 Walnut, a bar called Drifters. It was a gas station built in the 1940s or 50s. It is listed as a contributing structure. The last little gas station like this downtown was torn down by the City and is now a park. This proposal will make it very difficult for him to do anything with that property because it sits so far back from the street. If the building was torn down, nothing could be built there. Another property on the list is 110 Grace Street which used to be the entrance to Bob Warwick’s office. He tore that building down ten years ago. It was on this list as a 1935 commercial building. It was a one-story building and he didn’t think there was anything significant about it. That is where the new 8-story Marriott Hotel will be built. If that old one-story building was still there, the 8-story building could not be built there. Only a 1-1/2 story building could be put there. He wants his rights protected, but he saw this as taking his rights.

The Wilmington 20/20 Future Land Use Plan, which serves as the working doctrine for council's actions, states:

Older buildings with architectural significance located outside of protected historic districts are vulnerable to undesirable alterations that could leave an indelible mark on both the structure and the streetscape. The potential loss of craft or irreplaceable materials from a bygone era would have a serious impact on the urban fabric. Therefore, local historic district designation of structures in the other appropriate portions of downtown could help prevent future destruction.
However, examples of such "indelible marks" are in short supply. A property owner may wish to utilize his/her land in such a way that pays dividends in the form of new construction, such as for lease property, office space, apartments, etc. However, this would jeopardize the historic value of the location, if an undesirable - yet deemed "historic" structure had to be removed. According to the 20/20 plan, such private property owner capitalists are viewed as "threats":

With a growing market for new downtown development, potential threats to the urban fabric will increase. Investors will desire higher-density buildings to offset land costs and citizens may fight for historic preservation to maintain a lower-density character and high quality architecture.

Interestingly, the 20/20 plan mentions such denial of property rights in the form of forced preservation as necessary for "economic vitality"; ironically missing the threat to economic vitality that is posed by such nanny laws:

The identification, protection, and promotion of historic resources is critical to maintaining the sense of place that contributes significantly to the quality of life and economic vitality of Wilmington.

Onerous regulation and top heavy restriction for the sake of serving the exclusive downtown elite; to the detriment of economic prosperity and individual rights has become commonplace with the current cabal occupying City Hall. Such burdensome governance highlights the critical importance of citizen involvement in this current year's upcoming elections; and with local government in general.

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