San Marcos Historic Preservation Commission gets behind 90-day demolition delay ordinance

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Historic structures, buildings and landmarks in San Marcos would be protected from demolition without significant review under a new ordinance making its way through multiple city commissions.

The ordinance is a more specific and permanent version of a temporary measure the San Marcos City Council passed in June.

At their Aug. 28 meeting, the San Marcos Historic Preservation Commission unanimously voted to recommend the ordinance, an addition to the city’s existing construction permit regulations.

If adopted by the City Council, the ordinance would add a 90-day delay period for demolition projects to give city staff time to review whether or not an object of historical significance would be affected.

Exceptions to the ordinance would apply to buildings, structures or landmarks that pose a threat to public safety, or if the historic preservation commission grants a certificate of appropriateness.

The penalty for violating the ordinance would lead to a fine of up to $2,000, and would be a Class C misdemeanor.

Griffin Spell, the chair of the preservation commission, said members have long discussed the need of such regulations on demolition. He said the 90-day demolition delay review period was also a recommendation included in the city’s recent historic resources survey.

Spell added that he thinks that the recent demolition of the San Marcos Telephone Company building, a structure listed in the National Register of Historic Places, has helped spur the effort to update the city’s existing construction regulations.

The telephone company building, which was located 138 W. San Antonio St., was first listed by the National Register of Historic Places in 1983.

“But for some reason, it was never designated as a local landmark,” Spell said.”So it was demolished earlier this year in the summer.”

The demolition delay ordinance, Spell said, would help prevent similar situations in the future.

According to a tentative timeline presented to commissioners by city staff, planning and zoning commissioners will look over the ordinance in September before it is brought to City Council for approval and adoption after two readings—the first on Sept. 30 and the second on Oct. 15.

Spell said the commission appreciated the work city staff did to put the ordinance together, and the chance to make recommendations or changes—all of which dealt with clarifying the ordinance so that it does not interfere with existing code, or create confusion over terms.

“We caught some little things, and I think we’re glad we caught them now,” Spell said.

During their discussion, several commissioners questioned whether the penalty for violations of the ordinance was enough of a deterrent.

Commissioner Thea Dake asked city staff what would stop a developer from simply ignoring the ordinance and paying the fine. She said that she would like to see a harsher penalty.

“I don’t think it should be ‘up to’ I think it should be a maximum of whatever they can get,” Dake said, speaking in reference to the fines.

Other commissioners expressed similar concerns regarding the effectiveness of new demolition delay regulations given the penalties that can be enforced. Assistant City Attorney Sam Aguirre told commissioners that the scope of the ordinance does extend to enforcing penalties.

“I agree—sometimes that is the problem—it’s easier for developers to pay a fine,” Aguirre said. “But there are limitations on our ability to impose fines.”

Aguirre added that the ordinance allows the city to file for injunctive relief, a legal action at the district court level that could lead to an order to stop a demolition project.

“It would probably have to be a city manager call, and then the council might have to follow up with whether to prosecute the lawsuit to completion,” Aguirre said.

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