Austin’s historic preservation program cited as ineffective in new audit

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The administration of Austin’s historic preservation program was cited as ineffective in a city audit released Monday.

The Planning and Zoning Department was called out in the audit for poor administration of the program. Specifically, the audit made claims that fees are not consistently collected or secured by staff; justifications for administrative approvals are not documented; the status of application cases is not consistently tracked and only a subset of properties receive physical inspections, which are not documented.

District 7 Council Member Leslie Pool, one of four council members on the Audit and Finance Committee to which the audit was presented Monday, said the findings were “eye-opening” and confirmed increasing concerns over the efficiency of the city’s effort to preserve historic structures.

Greg Guernsey, director of the Planning and Zoning Department, cited staffing issues and workload as playing roles in the ineffective management of the program.

The audit found that among historic preservation officers there was often confusion over the criteria for establishing a structure as historic. The most vague of those criteria, according to Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky, is “community value,” a term that has been the subject of debate at both the Historic Landmark Commission and Austin City Council levels.

“We’ve had some discussion about changing it and even eliminating it because it’s very vague and confusing,” Sadowsky, a 17-year historic preservation officer, told Community Impact Newspaper on Monday. “It’s very difficult to define. Is it citywide? Is it to the neighborhood? Just one person? What defines the community?”

It also showed that the Historic Landmark Commission consistently has no legal counsel present at its meetings and there was often a lack of communication among staff–an issue that was also cited in the 2010 audit of the program.

The audit’s recommendations included:

  • Improve the process for the collection of fees
  • Develop a process to document the review and justification of administrative approval of relocation, alteration, and demolition.
  • Improve the process for inspecting historic designated properties
  • Work with the Historic Landmark Commission to identify training needs, timeframe for review and needs for legal support.

“I always look at these audits as a positive thing,” Sadowsky said. “It’s very easy, when you’re doing day-to-day work, not to notice that there is room for improvement. It’s positive when an independent agency can look at your process and say you have to think about doing some things differently here.”

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Christopher Neely
Christopher Neely is Community Impact's Austin City Hall reporter. A New Jersey native, Christopher moved to Austin in 2016 following two years of community reporting along the Jersey Shore. His bylines have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun and USA Today. He is a graduate of the University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism.
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