Last month, I wrote this in the Lakewood Advocate about the city’s current effort to rewrite Dallas’ conservation district ordinance and the damage it will do to historic preservation. Read the city’s proposal. I’ve put together this comparison chart to highlight the differences between the current CD formation process and the city’s proposed changes.
Today the City Plan Commission is being briefed on this proposal. I sent this letter to Plan Commissioners:
Dear City Plan Commissioners,
I am writing to express my concern about, and opposition to, the recently proposed changes to the city’s conservation district ordinance.
Having led the effort to create the M Streets Conservation District in 2001-02, and having overseen the creation of CDs during my eight years on the City Council, I have firsthand experience with the city’s CD process. The proposed changes will make it more difficult for neighborhoods to obtain conservation district status, will complicate rather than simplify the application process, and will make it easier for properties within existing conservation districts to withdraw from them.
At a fundamental level, conservation districts represent true grassroots zoning — zoning not dictated by the city or by a handful of residents or developers, but instead crafted by an entire neighborhood to meet their community’s unique needs.
The proposed changes would subvert this principle of self-determination. Currently, to initiate the CD process, a neighborhood must submit to the city signatures from more than 50% of the property owners who support exploring the creation of a conservation district. The city then holds a series of community meetings to explain the CD process and determine the specific standards that the neighborhood wants to include in the proposed ordinance. The resulting ordinance is then presented to the neighborhood to vote on via zoning reply forms. It is an inclusive, open, and transparent process that allows all sides to be engaged in the drafting of the proposed CD standards from the beginning.
The new proposal puts the cart before the horse, requiring a small neighborhood committee to first draft their proposed CD standards. Then the committee must obtain signatures from a super-majority of property owners who must sign off on predetermined standards they had no involvement in developing. This will eliminate conservation districts in Dallas. The required percentage is insurmountable. I doubt any historic or conservation district in Dallas has ever obtained a favorable response from 66%-75% of all property owners. In all Dallas zoning cases, we look at the percentage of favorable/unfavorable reply forms as a percentage of all forms returned, not all property owners in the subject area. It would be impossible to get 66%-75% of all property owners in any neighborhood to agree that the sky is blue, let alone get them to sign off on zoning standards they had no hand in developing. Why are we suddenly treating conservation districts differently from all other zoning cases and creating an unattainable standard no other zoning cases are required to meet?
Not only will these proposed changes extinguish the creation of CDs in our city, but they put existing conservation districts in jeopardy as well. The creation of an “opt-out” provision for removing property from existing conservation districts is extremely troubling. Such a provision does not exist in the current ordinance. It is telling that it took a full 16 pages to explain the new, overly-complicated, bureaucratic, and Draconian process to create, add to, or amend a conservation district, yet the new process proposed to remove property from an existing CD is quite simple and explained in less a quarter of a page: a property owner must simply apply to the city for removal. No complicated petitions, no super-majority thresholds. This proposed removal process would undermine and endanger existing conservation districts and lay the groundwork for snaggle-tooth, inconsistent, spot zoning that would be much more complicated for the city to administer. Why is it necessary to include a removal process in the enabling ordinance, and an easy one at that? By putting a removal provision in the CD enabling ordinance, the city is sending a very clear signal to builders and developers that CDs are merely a suggestion, open for reconsideration should the opportunity present itself.
Conservation Districts have been a success story in our city. It is no coincidence that the hottest, most desirable neighborhoods in Dallas right now are conservation districts in East Dallas and Oak Cliff. They have stabilized and improved older neighborhoods, and the increased property values are a testament to their success. The existing ordinance has served the preservation community and our city well, and the proposed changes will endanger existing conservation districts and have a chilling effect on the creation of future CDs. I urge you to reject this proposal.