GENEVA – Two Geneva residents asked city officials to revisit its ordinance that allows historic landmarking of an individual property without an owner’s consent.
Staff is to research the issue and bring it back to the council for consideration.
Marty Smircich of the 900 block of South Batavia Avenue and Teresa Keenan of the 1700 block of Southampton Court both sought a change in how properties are landmarked to include an owner’s consent.
“I agree with the importance of the historic district,” Smircich said at a meeting this week. “I’ve never talked to anyone who doesn’t think the downtown historic district is extremely important to the history of the city, and to the future of the city, and to the economic development and well-being of the city. The preservation code is a whole different story.”
In particular, Smircich said the city’s ordinance that allows landmark status to be sought by anyone anywhere without the owner’s consent is wrong.
“Anyone in the country could apply to landmark my house or to landmark yours without my consent or without your consent,” Smircich said. “Not only that, it could be done in secrecy without the owner knowing it for up to 45 days.”
Smircich said the city’s code does not have any requirement to tell the owner.
“It’s not something that should happen,” Smircich said. “It would take six members of this council to take and alter an individual owner’s property rights forever. Boy, I don’t think that’s right.”
Smircich said he would support starting with a $5,000 minimum fee for applying for landmark status for a property, which would keep people who are not truly serious from applying.
Keenan, a real estate agent, said she ran into a problem with a client who had bought a property that someone else tried to landmark against his wishes.
“We don’t have a process that the minute those applications are received that the property owner is … notified,” Keenan said. “It was a very unpleasant experience. … We could be much more proactive in the process than we are now.”
Still, Community Development Director Dick Untch said there was a lot of background to the requirement that the owner’s consent is not needed.
He said the city’s ordinance follows a model for historic preservation agencies.
In 2011, the council voted 8-1 with one absent to maintain the ordinance not to require an owner’s consent of landmark status.
“The general consensus at that time was that it would be the intent of [the] city to seek out voluntary landmark applications,” Untch said.
The value of such a requirement allows the city to protect historic properties from being demolished.
Still, Untch said, the final decision to allow the landmark status belongs to the City Council.
“The designation does not take place until the City Council votes ‘yea’ or ‘nay,’ ” Untch said. “It all rests right here. It totally rests with the City Council.”
Untch warned that the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency watches the activities of Certified Local Governments, and a move to require an owner’s consent could unravel the city’s status.
Through the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, local governments participate in state and federal incentive programs where properties located in certified historic districts can qualify for the 20 percent income tax credit, according to www.illinois.gov.
Certification also extends the a property tax assessment freeze, which also benefits local landmark and residences within local historic districts.
Geneva is one of 78 Certified Local Governments participating in preserving their local historic buildings, according to the website.
The Certified Local Government Program, was established by the National Historic Preservation Act Amendments of 1980. It gives municipalities and counties the opportunity to participate as partners in state and federal preservation activities, according to the website.
“If we take this non-owner consent and turn it into an owner consent, I’m not sure what they would do,” Untch said.
Smircich said because he agrees with the importance of the historic district, he would withdraw his objection to no-owner consent if it would put the city’s Certified Local Government Program in jeopardy.
“But I’d be darn sure we can’t put owner consent in there,” Smircich said. “Will they allow it? I think we should know. Historic preservation is something we do for the citizens of Geneva, not something we do to the citizens of Geneva.”
Second Ward Alderman Richard Marks said he was the “no” vote in 2011.
“I think it’s worth looking at,” Marks said.
“I don’t think there’s anybody on this council or anybody in this town that isn’t a staunch supporter of historic preservation,” 5th Ward Alderman Tom Simonian said.
“But I also don’t think there is anybody who is not a staunch supporter of personal property rights,” Simonian said. “My concern is, you put the two of them together, in my opinion, personal property rights will always come before an outside force trying to designate your property.”
Simonian said the process is embarrassing because a packet will show up in the mailbox of property owners, essentially blindsiding owners regarding the application for historic landmark status.
“This is wrong to begin with,” Simonian said.