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Planning commission passes demolition bill

By Rachel Molenda, Staff writer

The Municipal Planning Commission unanimously approved Wednesday a bill that would allow demolition to be delayed for properties in Charleston with a historic designation. The bill, which originated with the Strong Neighborhoods Task Force, outlines three levels of historic designations for buildings and districts.

The first is a “badge of honor” that simply recognizes a building or area’s historical significance. The second allows for a 90-day stay of demolition for such buildings. During this time, community members that feel the property has value are given the opportunity to work with property owners to find an alternative to tearing it down. The Historic Landmarks Commission, which is charged with approving or denying nominations and stays of demolition, could waive the 90-day delay if a structure is found to be beyond repair.

The third level would give a property or district the designation, allow for a demolition delay and require a design review for any changes made.

Charleston’s City Council has the final say in whether a structure would be listed on the local historic register.

While there were some concerns about an appeals process, commissioner Adam Krason--also the commission’s representatives on the HLC--said if the owner of a nominated individual property doesn’t want the historic designation that comes with design review, it wouldn’t be approved. The third tier designation would be the only one to directly affect a property owner beyond potential delayed demolition, Krason said.

“The first two, whether you want it or not, your property could be designated historic or historic with a stay of demolition. But there’s no harm to the property owner, because you can still do whatever you would like to your property,” Krason said. “It’s the third one that would require the design review that the owner has the right to say I do or do not want that designation.”

If an entire district is nominated, the residents determine the outcome. More than 50 percent of residents in the nominated area must approve the designation.

If a property subject to demolition isn’t already designated historic, the public cannot start the nomination process in an effort to halt demolition, city planner Lori Brannon said. Properties must already be on the register.

The commission also voted Wednesday to amend its rules. The bill clarifies that commissioners may attend meetings and vote on items not only in person, but also by telephone and video conference. Regarding voting, the amendment makes it clear that no action is official unless approved by a majority of members present. No member can vote by proxy. That means one member cannot charge another member with the task of casting a vote on his or her behalf in the event the member isn’t present at a meeting.

The Municipal Planning Commission was criticized in 2000 when a commissioner left a note with his vote to expand Sherwood Forest, a South Hill subdivision, after he attended the presentation but left the meeting early. Then-City Attorney Jill Harlan told the Gazette the commission’s rules allowed members to cast votes after they left a meeting, as long as they were there for the debate.

The issue eventually landed in Kanawha Circuit Court when Sherwood Forest residents asked a judge to throw out the vote cast by the absent commissioner. The expansion was permitted despite the lawsuit after the commission made a second vote.

Reach Rachel Molenda at rachel.molenda@wvgazette.com, 304-348-5102 or follow @rachelmolenda on Twitter.


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