As the Mayor of America’s first settlement, I treasure the rich authenticity of Pensacola’s architectural heritage. Historic preservation is the visual and tangible conservation of our city’s cultural identity. However, the recent move to add new layers of bureaucratic review to the issuance of demolition permits is not something that I support.
When do property rights give way to preserve Pensacola’s history? That question, in one form or another, has been at the heart of the recent debate over the City’s procedures for granting demolition permits.
The questions about what to preserve and what to let go, about what areas of the city or what aged building should and shouldn’t have special review have provoked division, hard feelings and debate – those tensions foreshadow the delicate choices we will face as the economy continues to improve and more people look for new opportunities to build into build new homes and bring new businesses to Pensacola. The answers are not going to be dictated from City Hall, but rather they will come from the citizens and property owners who are most likely to be affected by more restrictive regulations.
Pensacola is substantially built out. New construction is limited to development of scattered infill properties or requires the demolition of pre-existing structures. When demolition is required, property owners must obtain a permit from the City’s Building Official. Property owners in five special review districts must first get approval from the Architectural Review Board. This extra level of review is designed to help preserve the character of the neighborhood and people who own and buy in those districts do so with the knowledge that those restrictions will apply to them.
Property owners in other areas of the city do not have those restrictions. Consequently, some believe that there is an unacceptable risk that the City will lose historical buildings. They have asked for a moratorium on demolitions in order to allow time for the Planning Board to recommend changes to how the city issues demolition permits.
How can we balance the interests of both sides? The first thing we can do is acknowledge that the City is not facing an epidemic of demolitions and it does not lack protections for structures that may possess historical or cultural significance.
Since the start of the year, the City has issued 52 demolition permits. Only six of those structures were over 100 years-old and two of those had been determined to be unsafe. Aside from the Sunday House, which was in a district that was already subject to additional review, none of those demolitions stirred controversy.
In order to avoid the unintended consequences of legislation, property owners need to make their voices heard. Can we afford to focus so intensely on the value of property to a neighborhood that we lose sight of the value of the property to the people who own it? Restrictions to demolitions in districts that are not subject to special review need to be requested by the owners affected, not imposed by government fiat. Calls for preservation need to come with a plan for saving the property and evidence of financial means to carry it out, otherwise they are merely obstructionist, akin to a frivolous lawsuit.
In our rush to take sides over the demolition of one house we need to be careful to avoid a result we do not want: board review that injects uncertainty and confusion into development projects, so much so, that property owners and developers abandon worthwhile projects. We risk adding layers of bureaucratic red tape to the sale and development of private property instead of creating the framework for bringing attractive properties onto the tax rolls.
We are proud of our history and thanks to organizations like UWF Historic Trust we have historical preservation measures in place. In matters of historical and cultural preservation there must be a reasonable balance and consideration of what really is best for our city. In my opinion, a moratorium in order to consider increased regulation is not a balanced approach.