The Proposed Legislation to Merge Kingston’s Historic Commissions is not Ready for a Public Hearing.

“So what does it matter, one historic window? Beyond being the physical evidence of history, all these details contribute to the greater ensemble of a historic neighborhood—its spatial structure, continuity, texture and depth—the general feeling that orientates us in time and place. That sense of place is what drew many of us here; it’s what inspires artists and entrepreneurs; and what drives important economic engines for the city—the specialized building trades and tourism. Historic buildings are often at the heart of our most exciting development projects and the backdrop of our annual community events—the chronogram block party, the Artists’ Soapbox Derby, the O+ Festival, the Burning of Kingston. Our historic fabric should be treated as a precious resource like water and air. It’s not renewable. Buildings don’t preserve themselves.   – Marissa Marvelli, Vice Chair, CoK HLPC

CITIZEN REQUEST

Please plan to attend the next Kingston Common Council meeting on Tuesday, June 5th at 7:30pm, where the council will vote on a resolution that would send the proposed legislation for a possible merger of Kingston’s historic commissions to involved agencies for comment that include the Ulster County Planning Department, Kingston Planning Board, Town of Ulster, NYS SHPO, Town of Esopus, Rhinebeck and Red Hook.  Request that Kingston’s Common Council deny the resolution and instead, send the proposed legislation back to the Laws and Rules committee for further study and development with members of the Heritage Area Commission, Historic Landmarks Preservation Commission and Kingston Common Council members.

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By Rebecca Martin 

The current legislation to merge the Historic Landmarks Preservation Commission (HLPC) and the Heritage Area Commission (HAC) is not ready for public comment. Something stinks about this process, and I can’t tell you why.

Recently, legislation appeared at the Kingston Common Council’s Laws and Rules Committee brought forward by Kingston’s Corporation Council to “streamline” or merge Kingston’s HAC and HLPC commissions. This month, and only two days after KingstonCitizens.org hosted a well attended educational forum on ‘Rethinking Historic Preservation” in the city of Kingston, the controversial legislation passed through committee unanimously to the floor, where a public hearing has been scheduled. Not because a public hearing was the correct next step, but mainly because I think the council members didn’t understand the weight of a public hearing at this time given the way this legislation was framed or explained.  This is all so complicated, so we appreciate you following along and connecting the dots.

A Brief History

For years, there have been conversations that seem to have come from the Kingston Planning Department, about developers trying to move projects through the city’s process with projects in historic districts getting help up in the Historic Landmarks Preservation Commission domain.  Instead of looking at the sequence of these steps in what is called a coordinated review, some in the city believe that “merging historic commissions” was the best way in making the process for a development in historic landmark areas more ‘streamlined.”

The Local Law Process.

The city seems on a tear to want to pass this merger through whether or not preservation professionals have had the opportunity to participate.  At the May 2018 Laws and Rules Committee meeting, Kingston’s Corporation Council Dan Gartenstein laid out a timeline, recommending that the council hold a public hearing followed by two readings before a vote August to meet the City of Kingston’s budget cycle in September. When merged, the commission would be overseen by the planning department who could carve out a budget line in next years budget for funds in order for additional preservation work, such as identifying new historic districts or saving historic homes. When challenged to make the public hearing later in the summer, he stated that there was litigation in the wings that made the merger timely.

For the record, the HLPC is not concerned about a budget line at this time. The commission only wishes to make sure that their current ordinance is clear.

According to the Department of State’s document VIEW  “Adopting Local Laws in NYS” on page 14 under ‘Public Hearings’ in Step III, that the ‘law is presented to the municipal governing body and introduced by one of its members” and not the corporation council as has been done.  What is Kingston’s corporation doing introducing new legislation and then, placing pressure on council members to do so with speed?

Kingston’s Comprehensive Plan (CP) and Zoning and Historics.

The streamlining of commissions had come up as an item to place in Kingston’s new CP, but in 2015 – those who were concerned brought in State professionals from both SHPO and the Preservation League on the matter that led to it being retracted in the final document.  VIEW Daniel McKay’s Testimony.

Kingston City Planner Suzanne Cahill said to council members that the final CP had a goal to streamline commissions, it did not. However, it turned up again in the CP Zoning recommendations somehow.

On Gentrification. 

During the educational forum, the Mayor asked, “As properties are identified as landmarks, to bring them up to the standards to today’s Historic Preservation requirements can be expensive. In Kingston, people with money buying these historic houses raise the property values tremendously.  Because we have a housing stock of historic house, how do we provide access for all of those moderate/ low-income individuals? It’s a struggle that we have and may lead to gentrification if only some kinds of people can afford these houses.”

Erin Tobin, Vice President for Policy and Preservation, Preservation League of NY, said in response, “In many communities, there are vacant buildings and no one investing in them. Any investment requires the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit and the Historic Preservation Tax Credit. You might contrast that with the only other analogy in NYS would be Brooklyn or NYC, where people are moving into neighborhoods that have lower property values and raising them. I don’t know if that’s Historic preservations fault, necessarily….one can have flexibility in approach….you can find ways to make that more affordable. I can’t underscore the importance of the Historic Preservation Tax Credit that we have in NYS….for people investing in historic homes. It is a rebate, at or below $60k that provides initial money in.  Communities can strategize to find ways to turn it into a loan, so the homeowner doesn’t have to put that money up front, or most of it…there are land banks doing that…I can’t say that I’ve seen a big issue with preservation causing gentrification. If anything, I’m seeing that in areas where there are preservation standards investors are using the low-income housing credit as a tool to use as an incentive.”

But it came up again in May’s Laws and Rules Committee meeting, where Majority Leader Rennie Scott Childress said, “…This is something that’s about rich people. And so we have to be very careful because we want to protect our historic heritage, but we also want to make sure that it’s not something that begins to price people out of living in Kingston. And so that’s something for us to keep in mind.”

You can watch the video where Erin Tobin dispelled this concern.   VIEW starts 27:31

“I believe justification does exist to maintain both the Heritage Area Commission and a Historic Landmarks Commission. I think an approach to look at is a coordinated review process which may include one application which would be reviewed by both Commissions collaboratively.” VIEW

In comments made by current City of Kingston Mayor Steve Noble before he was Mayor portrays exactly what preservationists and citizen advocates are requesting.  What happened to Mayor Noble’s stance?

What’s at stake?

The Mayor believes that merging commissions without any substantive discussion about how the new combined commission will function and how the regulatory review process will change as a result (and that our state-level support will not be impeded) is not necessary to make clear beforehand. What is meant to be a marriage is more like a shotgun wedding.

Furthermore, the current legislation presented by Kingston’s Corporation Council has potential flaws, working with Kingston’s existing preservation ordinance that is based in part on a previous preservation model law that is 30 years old. It has been changed several times, to make that ordinance more murky  Because of which, the HLPC has taken up the preservation model law that is more up to date created in 2014, that provides NYS standards meant to help in providing good framework.

Streamlining isn’t yet consensual. If done at all, here are some of the real concerns:

1. Valuable state-level support in the way of training and grant opportunities may be in jeopardy if this new arrangement violates the terms of an agreement between CofK and NYS.

2. The proposed legislation goes beyond its stated intent to combine two commissions. Buried in the text are small but significant tweaks to the existing procedures of the HLPC, which prior to now have not been discussed or studied.

3. The proposed legislation misses a key opportunity to incorporate the 2014 Model Preservation Law, which offers clearer language and procedures.

4. The public is in the dark about the motivation for the accelerated timetable for this merging. At a recent Laws & Rules Committee meeting when asked what the hurry was, the deputy corporation counsel stated that there were other factors at play that he did not want to share in a public meeting.

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