Final Georgetown HARC decision removes supermajority rule for appeals

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Updated April 18 at 5:57 a.m.

A debate over the role of Georgetown’s Historic and Architectural Review Commission, or HARC, that stretched for more than half of a year came to a close April 9 after City Council voted unanimously to amend portions of the city’s unified development code related to historic preservation.

The ordinance approved by City Council kept final decision-making over the type and scale of alterations to historic properties within HARC’s authority, which was a primary point of contention during the debate and policymaking process.

However, the ordinance changed a previous rule that required a supermajority vote by council members to overturn a HARC decision. City Council now will only need a simple majority, or at least four out of the seven council members, to overturn a decision made by the historic board.

“I think all of us understand the importance of HARC and downtown,” Council Member Steve Fought said prior to voting in favor of the new ordinance.

Although the final ordinance received unanimous approval, council members Anna Eby and Rachael Jonrowe supported amending the ordinance prior to the council’s vote to keep the supermajority rule in place. The amendment did not receive additional votes from the other council members.

There was some confusion on the dais during the April 9 meeting over whether an initial vote by the council on March 26 to advance the ordinance and incorporate recommendations from the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission included an intention to also remove the supermajority vote requirement.

Removing the supermajority rule was was not part of the recommendations from the Planning and Zoning Commission, although commission members did discuss the issue, said Sofia Nelson, the city’s planning director.

Both Eby and Jonrowe said they believed the council’s final ordinance would preserve the supermajority requirement, which they both wanted to keep intact.

Resident Ross Hunter, speaking to council members before their vote, said he believed the city’s planning commission as well as the Unified Development Code Advisory Committee, which also approved recommendations on the ordinance, both were clear in the desire to keep the supermajority rule.

Hunter said HARC supporters, many of whom spoke to the council during its initial March 26 vote on the matter, likely were not aware that the supermajority component of the ordinance was still in question as the council prepared to make its final vote.

“[Removing the supermajority rule] makes it easier to flout the HARC decision and bring it to a political field,” Hunter said.

Fought said he believed the city would be better off with a simple majority rule to overturn HARC decisions, although he added that City Council should consider reassessing the appeal process for residents who disagree with HARC decisions.

HARC’s seven appointed members—the commission also includes two appointed at-large members—meet monthly to consider policy related to historic preservation and design review in the city. In addition to granting certificates of appropriateness, the commission makes recommendations to City Council on designations for historic landmarks and historic overlay districts, among other duties.

Certificates of appropriateness are required when owners of historic properties want to undertake renovations or demolitions.

The new ordinance established a number of new policies pertinent to owners of historic properties in Georgetown.

HARC will review certificates requested by owners of high priority or medium priority structures that were identified in Georgetown’s most recent historic resource survey adopted in August 2017. The survey included 1,677 properties.

Owners of low-priority properties will have their requests for certificates reviewed by the city’s historic preservation officer, except in cases where a property owner is seeking permission to demolish a low-priority historic structure located within one of Georgetown’s historic districts. Those matters will be reviewed by HARC and will require public notifications.

The historic board will also review high-priority demolition requests outside of Georgetown’s historic districts, while the historic preservation officer will handle reviews for medium-priority demolitions.

New single-family and two-family residences built in historic districts will need certificates approved by HARC.

“In-kind” materials can also be used for alterations to low- and medium-priority historic properties to preserve historic character.

Although she disagreed with changing the supermajority rule, Jonrowe said she supported the new ordinance and commended city staff, council and commission members as well as residents on coming to terms with a policy to govern Georgetown’s historic properties.

Correction: An initial version of this story inaccurately reported the date of City Council’s initial vote on the new ordinance and the process used to appeal HARC decisions. A reference to the new ordinance’s process for new single-family and two-family construction has also been clarified.

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