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Avondale Estates City Commission receives update on changes to Historic Preservation Guidelines

Avondale Estates

Avondale Estates City Commission receives update on changes to Historic Preservation Guidelines

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Photo obtained via the city of Avondale Estates website.


This story has been updated. 

By Zoe Seiler, contributor 

Avondale Estates, GA – The City Commission on July 23 met with its consultant Lord Aeck Sargent, for an update on the draft of the Historic District Guidelines.

At the meeting, representatives from the consulting firm gave an overview of the goals of the rewrite and highlighted some of the major changes.

Avondale Estates was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1986 “due to the character of the City’s architecture and landscape, and because it’s the only documented example in the southeastern United States of an early 20th century planned town,” the city’s website says.

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The city was established in 1924 as “the dream of founder George Willis, a patent medicine tycoon whose Tudor-revival concept was meant to mimic Stratford-upon-Avon, the birthplace of William Shakespeare,” Decaturish previously reported.

The city has been working with Lord Aeck Sargent for several months to update the Historic District Guidelines to make the guidelines clearer and consistent. The rewrite of the guidelines coincides with the rewrite of the city’s zoning codes.

The goal overall is to improve and retool the existing guidelines, said Marco Ancheita with Lord Aeck Sargent.

“It’s not a total redo of the guidelines, it’s looking at them in detail and seeing what needs to be adjusted and what needs to be removed or added,” Ancheita said.

The city’s application for the National Register of Historic Places talks about Avondale’s unique combination of architecture, urban design and landscape architecture, Ancheita said. The consultants are looking at how to maintain and preserve that.

Ancheita explained that residents who participated in previous surveys and public meetings want more clarity in the guidelines, saying that they are hard to follow, the language of the current guidelines is vague and it’s hard to know what is and isn’t allowed. There’s also a lack of clarity about what triggers a review by the city’s Historic Preservation Commission.

He explained that residents want consistency in terms of the language of the guidelines and the enforcement of them.

“The enforcement by the HPC has sometimes been interpreted as being subjective instead of objective or the language in the guidelines is subjective and allows for subjectivity. Trying to bring consistencies to the rulings of applications is super important,” Ancheita said.

He said that in terms of new construction, some houses have been torn down and replaced with something that is out of scale or out of context with the historic district. There aren’t many constraints when it comes to construction however there are many constraints for other aspects like replacing windows, Ancheita said.

Karen Gravel with Lord Aeck Sargent highlighted some of the major changes they have made so far.

The current historic guidelines have a tier system for categorizing homes and specifying what changes can be made. The biggest revision in the new guidelines is combining the tier one and tier two designations, Gravel said.

Ancheita said that the tier system logic is something they have been looking at since the beginning of the rewrite process.

“We’ve had the specific question of how do you all feel about combining the tier one and tier two? That for the most part got a positive response in terms of combining the systems,” he said.

This change affects the dormers, side porches and side and rear window treatments. It also clarifies some of the language relating to preservation materials.

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According to Gravel, these changes include:

– Dormers are allowed on the back half of a property, which is a carryover from tier two.

– Front dormers are not allowed on the preservation homes which is consistent with tier one.

– Side porches can be enclosed with glazing or screening, similar to tier two, which backs off of requirements for tier one.

– Windows will be treated more consistently on all four sides for tiers one and two.

Tier three will be called compatible design and the consultants took out some historicist language that was confusing for tier three, Gravel said.

“I think that was probably the biggest change. We really added a lot more graphics (to the guidelines) and reduced the mass, I would say, significantly in additions and accessory dwelling units and actually houses that can be built,” Gravel said.

Lord Aeck Sargent worked to clarify the new guidelines and clear up what happens at each stage of the design review process. They also provided examples of the different types, styles and architecture that are within the city, Gravel said.

They also added a checklist to help homeowners apply for the preservation designation.

“Our goal is to be able to have a document that a homeowner can review. They can see what is required and it is coordinated with the guidelines. There can be a check yes or no. Are you complying with the guideline, are you doing XYZ,” Gravel said. “The goal is to get to an application that has all yeses that the city and whoever their consultants are that review this and the HPC agree with the yeses.”

She added that the HPC should then focus on any “no” answers or anything that is questionable in the application.

“The point is that we’ve tried to bring objectionable yes or no questions to the process that can be vetted well in advance of any public hearing, so that there’s a less subjective layering on to a review of a property,” Gravel said.

Gravel and Ancheita have received a lot of feedback on windows. Gravel said that from a preservation perspective and from the U.S. Secretary of the Interior’s standards perspective, there’s advocacy for repairing and maintaining existing historic windows.

She acknowledged that that is a difficult thing to do but within the new guidelines, they are advocating for repair instead of replacement. However, there are new requirements for what needs to be submitted to the HPC and what those windows can be if they need to be replaced.

All the commissioners and the mayor raised concerns that it can be difficult for homeowners to improve or maintain their homes in the historic district.

“I have always felt that the new ordinance shifted the design regimes away from evaluating projects on their compatibility with nearby buildings and the visual integrity of the district to the preservation of materials and construction techniques of a few homes,” Commissioner Dee Merriam said. “As a result, out of the approximately over 500 homes in the district around 160 homes, that would be around 80 preservation homes and another 80 conservation homes, go through extensive reviews that limit homeowner choices about details that may have little impact on the overall visual character of the district.”

The board added that they don’t want to limit people’s ability to improve their homes.

“I have concerns with homeowners that are in them that go through endless periods of time trying to do what others would consider basic maintenance – windows, doors, gutters, landscaping, retaining walls, those sort of things,” Mayor Pro Tem Brian Fisher said.

Commissioner Lionel Laratte, who lives in a historic home, discussed modern living and making changes to homes.

“We live in the 21st century and there have been advances in the 21st century that make life easier for us, that make life more comfortable for us. I don’t think that living in a historic home should prevent you from enjoying some of those things,” Laratte said.

He added that if someone wanted to add an additional dormer to the front of their home, they wouldn’t be able to do that according to the new guidelines.

“I think there needs to be some balance there, some consideration. Is it possible to make that addition look like it was built in the ‘30s at least from the front so that it seamlessly blends in? I wouldn’t see that as too much of an issue and I wouldn’t see it as changing the character of the street,” Laratte said. “It would have to be done in such a way that it matches the rest of the home.”

Laratte said that the city’s Historic Preservation Commission should consider helping residents enhance their homes in a way that sticks to the character of the home and the historic district.

“I think that there’s a lot of knowledge there that can achieve that balance of preservation, but balance with modernization and enhancement,” Laratte said.

The City Commission also mentioned the importance of having a vibrant city, attracting new residents and retaining the residents in the historic district.

“We want to create a sustainable, vibrant city that’s attractive, where people want to move here, they feel like they’re part of a community, where their voice is heard,” Mayor Jonathan Elmore said.

Elmore wants people to be able to build what they want within reason. He doesn’t want preserving houses to take precedence over things like the ability to add value or functionality to a home, conservation of energy or property rights, he said.

“If I had to define one thing I have a problem with, it’s how these houses are defined, is what category they’re going into and do these homeowners know what’s happening,” Elmore said. “I just want to make sure that we’re not hindering our growth, we’re not overly hindering the ability of homeowners to improve their properties, to add a second story, to put in better windows. Those things are important. That’s a big deal for me – people’s ability to improve their property because if they can’t they’re going to move.”

The City Commission is still in the process of asking questions and Lord Aeck Sargent is revising the draft guidelines based on feedback from the board, the public, the HPC and the Historic Preservation Division. Gravel said they hope to go through a process of approval in August.

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