City government shake-up, community meeting shape Cooper-Young landmarks status debate
By Kristen Schebler
June was a busy month for everyone keeping up with the Landmarks process here in Cooper-Young. Not only did the neighborhood’s Landmarks Committee hold its second public meeting, the Landmarks Commission downtown has seen some big changes in staffing and policy. As ever, the Cooper-Young Community Association is committed to facilitating this process, so I’d like to take a little space to outline some of these city-level changes and provide a brief recap of the recent public meeting.
Early in June, city government made the decision to collapse staffing for the Landmarks Service Center into the Office of Planning and Development and the Office for Comprehensive Planning. In the past, the Landmarks Service Center employed two staff members dedicated to handling all aspects of support for landmarks districts and the Landmarks Commission. These staff members have been the primary resource for information on creating a new district, providing answers to questions from developing guidelines to the proper procedure for community voting on those guidelines.
Moving forward, staffing support for the Landmarks Commission will come from both the OPD and the OCP. The OPD will handle all applications for certificates of appropriateness (the type of permits issued by the Landmarks Commission). Currently, Brian Bacchus is the staff person assigned to this area; he can be reached at 901- 576-6601 or email@example.com for any questions related to the permitting process. The Office of Comprehensive planning will handle the management of district guidelines including updates to existing guidelines.
The other big change at the city level is related to the voting process within a neighborhood seeking landmarks status. For several years, the standard procedure has been to hold a vote for all of the property owners within a proposed district; in general, those who choose not to vote have been counted as consenting. This has been the same process used for nearly every existing landmarks district in the city. However, this process is not codified in the Landmarks Commission bylaws. Based on this and other factors, Josh Whitehead of OPD requested review of this process from the city attorney’s office. The official ruling from the city attorney is that there is no legal requirement for a neighborhood vote. More specifically:
Any requirement for a percentage of property owners’ approval to establish a historic zoning district is not required or even mentioned in the Tennessee zoning enabling legislation, the Memphis City Charter, the Memphis Code of Ordinance or in the rules of procedure which govern the Memphis City Council or the Memphis Landmarks Commission. If there is any current practice by the City Council or the Memphis Landmarks Commission to require a percentage of property owner approval for a historic zoning, it is not required by law and may have been applied by desire of the Board. (Esther Sykes-Wood, City of Memphis Law Division)
Unfortunately, this means that there is no clear process described in the Landmarks Commission bylaws by which a community might become a landmarks district. In order to fix this, Josh Whitehead has proposed an amendment to these bylaws that would add a 25 percent threshold petition from property owners as the initial step in applying to become a landmarks district. This petition can be found in full online via the Landmarks Commission web site. In a nutshell, it proposes that 25 percent of the property owners within a proposed district must sign a petition demonstrating that they are in favor of becoming a landmarks district. This petition would NOT constitute adoption of landmarks district status but would instead trigger the next steps currently outlined in the commission’s bylaws.
This proposed amendment has been submitted for comment to the Landmarks Commission and is expected to be discussed at their next meeting on Thursday, July 27th. If you have any thoughts about this proposal, you are encouraged to contact OPD and/or attend the meeting in July. It is very important to know that this amendment has not yet been adopted and that there is an opportunity to be involved in this discussion with the city.
Cooper-Young Landmarks Committee Second Public Meeting
On Thursday, June 22nd, the CY Landmarks Committee held their second public meeting at First Congregational Church from 6 to 8 p.m. They had a healthy turnout with around 90 community members coming out to learn about landmarks, discuss the proposed guidelines, and ask questions about the process. The evening began with an open house-style poster session before the committee gave a short presentation and then took questions and comments from the crowd.
One of the biggest discussions of the evening revolved around the city level changes to the voting process and how a petition might be a positive or negative change. Some residents voiced concerns that the proposed 25 percent was too low a threshold while others asked if the committee would still be willing to hold a vote even without the legal requirement. An informal poll of the room found that roughly 75 percent of attendees were in favor of becoming a landmarks district but all agreed that, while this was informative, a community-wide vote would be more representative. There were some questions about how this vote might be carried out and those in favor of holding such a vote were encouraged to write down their ideas for future discussion. Attendees were also asked to share their opinions of the proposed amendment with the city.
The CY Landmarks Committee is very thankful to everyone who came out to the meeting. They are especially grateful for those who left comments and feedback on the guidelines and the process moving forward. Several attendees expressed interest in joining the committee. This is a great way to get involved with the process and all are welcome to join the group. If you or someone you know might be interested, please contact the CYCA at firstname.lastname@example.org and we will be happy to connect you with the committee.