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City Council member Warren Jones
Jax Daily Record Wednesday, Aug. 13, 201412:00 PM EST

Council subcommitteee wrestling with when 'historic' sites can be demolished

by: Max Marbut Associate Editor

In the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, “blight,” in the urban blight context, is defined with three words. “Historic,” in the context of buildings, is defined with 10 words.

Based on a conversation Tuesday at City Hall, it won’t be nearly that simple for the City Council Special Ad Hoc Committee on Jacksonville’s Neighborhood Blight Special Subcommittee on Abandoned Structures.

The subcommittee, chaired by council member Warren Jones, is charged with clarifying proposed legislation, 2014-427, that would allow the city to revise the legal definition of “unsafe building or unsafe structure” and authorize demolition of a non-historic structure that has been boarded up and had no water or electric service for more than 24 months.

Jones said the legislation will “balance the need to remove structures that need to be removed while preserving structures that can be occupied.”

It likely won’t be a short process.

“This is the first meeting of probably several we need to have,” he said when he called the meeting to order.

On the subject of how to determine whether a boarded-up house with no utilities should be treated differently under the amended rule if the structure is historic, Jones said there is no procedure to clearly determine historic status.

One suggestion, based on guidelines used by the National Register of Historic Places, is that architecture in place for 50 years or more may be considered historic.

“My personal view is that every structure that is 50 years old is not historic,” Jones said.

Lisa Sheppard, city historic planner, said while the 50-year benchmark is used by many municipalities to determine intrinsic value of property, historic surveys for Duval County are incomplete. Some neighborhoods — Riverside/Avondale, Springfield and Murray Hill, for example — have been surveyed and granted historic district status, but most of the county has not been surveyed.

Having a complete historic survey would make it easier to determine if a property should be preserved based on its history, but it can take one year or more to survey a neighborhood, Sheppard said.

In the meantime, the city Historic Planning Commission may evaluate specific properties when the owner applies for a demolition permit.

Some permits have been denied based on a property being deemed historic, or even “significant,” Sheppard said.

Council member John Crescimbeni agreed with Jones’ assessment of the 50-year standard.

“I grew up in a house that was built in the late ’50s or early ’60s. I don’t think it’s historic – other than that I lived there,” he said.

As for houses that have not been connected to utilities for two or more years, council member Lori Boyer questioned whether that alone would make a structure unsafe, the current standard for non-voluntary removal by the city.

She said city demolition could raise property rights issues.

“Essentially, we’re telling people you must have power or we’re going to demolish your property,” said Boyer.

Kimberly Scott, director of the Regulatory Compliance Department, said JEA can identify at least 12,000 addresses in Jacksonville that have been disconnected from electric service for at least two years.

Jones said the subcommittee must “make sure we are on firm legal ground” to demolish a structure based on it having no utilities connected for two years.

Boyer cautioned the subcommittee to carefully consider the language that will end up in the proposed amendment. “We get ourselves into trouble when we try to create ‘one size fits all,’” she said.

Jones scheduled the second meeting of the subcommittee Aug. 26. He said representatives from HabiJax, the local Habitat for Humanity affiliate, and Builders Care, the charitable arm of the Northeast Florida Builders Association, have been invited to attend and provide input on the proposed amendment.

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