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Local

Geneva's preservation planner under fire by historic district objectors

'We have suffered a bias by the preservation planner in favor of applicants'

The house at 716 Shady Ave., Geneva, is considered a contributing property in the proposed new South Geneva Historic District The Queen Ann Cottage was built in 1895 by Henry Bond Fargo. A continued Historic Preservation Commission public hearing is set for 7 p.m. May 21 at FONA, 1900 Averill Road, Geneva.
The house at 716 Shady Ave., Geneva, is considered a contributing property in the proposed new South Geneva Historic District The Queen Ann Cottage was built in 1895 by Henry Bond Fargo. A continued Historic Preservation Commission public hearing is set for 7 p.m. May 21 at FONA, 1900 Averill Road, Geneva.

GENEVA – As the Historic Preservation Commission’s public hearing on a petition to create another historic district continues for a third time, opponents are highly critical of the process and of Preservation Planner Michael Lambert.

The next continued public hearing on the proposed historic district is at 7 p.m. May 21 at FONA, 1900 Averill Road, Geneva.

In strongly worded letters and testimony, opponents accused Lambert of acting outside the scope of his duties to aid the petitioners who are seeking to create the South Geneva Historic District on the south side of the city.

“This has quickly gone well past historic preservation, to collusion, rigging, manipulation, lies and bullying, threatening our fundamental rights as homeowners,” Jay and Sarah Walkington stated in a letter of objection to the inclusion of their house, 728 Shady Ave., in the proposed district.

During public testimony at the April 16 continued hearing, Jennifer Gustafson said the nomination “lacked integrity throughout the process.”

“We have suffered a bias by the preservation planner in favor of applicants,” Gustafson said.

How to avoid a supermajority vote

Specifically, Gustafson said an email from Lambert to the applicants advised them the best ways to avoid a supermajority vote on the City Council, how to recruit more applicants and anticipated pressing unwilling property owners into the district.

The email from Lambert to lead petitioner Gillian McNamara advises on everything from boundaries to what percentage of objections will trigger a supermajority vote by the City Council.

“Based on my supervisor’s opinion about the southern boundary, it may be advisable to force either the Walkington property or the Bogash property into the district boundaries if it picks up two more willing properties,” Lambert’s wrote in a Sept. 14, 2018 email to McNamara.

Community Development Director David DeGroot is Lambert’s supervisor.

“Remember, Alderman (Robert) Swanson has to recuse himself and cannot vote on the (historic district) proposal … which is why you are working to avoid the supermajority requirement.”

With 10 aldermen, the requirement would be for seven affirmative votes in order to approve a new historic district.

Lisa Cameron, of 921 Hawthorne Lane, also complained about Lambert in her testimony.

“He stated in the emails that he would be careful not to tip the calculations to trigger a supermajority,” Cameron said. “This significantly oversteps the role of preservation planner and in our opinion, it exemplifies coercion.”

Lambert was doing his job

In an email response to a request for comment, city officials defended Lambert’s work as doing what his job requires as well as provided the historic planner's job description.

“The most important task and where most of the position’s time is spent, is explaining, interpreting and providing guidance on historic preservation regulations,” according to an email from city spokesman Kevin Stahr.

“This includes working with applicants, developers, property owners, city staff and others to provide technical assistance, resolve problems, and achieve a timely review of historic preservation commission review applications,” according to Stahr’s email.

The position also requires that Lambert review submitted historic preservation commission applications for accuracy and completeness; that he recommend modifications and make requests for additional information as needed to bring applications into compliance with applicable regulations, according to Stahr’s email.
 
“In addition … the Historic Preservation Planner conducts research, prepares reports, and formulates recommendations on historic preservation projects,” Stahr’s email stated.

Nominating, objecting

Emails show that Lambert also advised objectors – as his position required.

In a Feb. 22 email to objector Meg Bogash, Lambert explained that the requirements for nominating an area as a historic district is different from the requirements of a formal objection or legal protest.

“The city code does not require that all owners of each property agree to inclusion in a proposed district,” Lambert’s email stated. “The city code provisions regarding the nomination of a historic district ... specifically identify that at least 51% of the owners of a parcel must object as the threshold for a valid legal protest of the proposed historic district.”

Lambert’s email further clarifies that objecting or protesting is not an “opt-out” provision.

In a March 6 email to Katie and Zach Tegge, who also object to being included in the proposed historic district, Lambert clarified his role.

“My role, as Preservation Planner, is to answer questions pertinent to submitted requirements and provide information that is requested and that I may have on file – to nominators as well as impacted neighbors,” Lambert’s email stated. “My role, as Preservation Planner, is not to advocate for or against a proposed nomination.”

Guidance or interference
 
Gustafson said she would not respond to the city’s statement that Lambert was doing his job.

Cameron did not return a voicemail message seeking comment.

But in an email, objector Sarah Walkington rebuffed the city’s explanation and maintained that Lambert did too much to aid the nominators.

“There is a line between providing guidance on historic preservation regulations and interfering with the political process,” Sarah Walkington’s email stated.

“Mr. Lambert stepped way over that line when he dictated to one of the nominators the properties that should be included in the proposed historic district, not because of any purported architectural or cultural significance, but simply to avoid triggering a required supermajority vote by City Council,” Sarah Walkington's email stated.

Geneva Preservation Planner Michael Lambert’s job functions as delineated in the description of his duties includes:

• Explains, interprets, and provides guidance on historic preservation regulations and related construction/site development regulations.

• Coordinates formal plan reviews conducted by the Historic Preservation Commission.

• Works with permit applicants, developers, property owners, city staff and others to provide technical assistance, resolve problems, and achieve timely review of historic preservation commission review applications.

• Reviews submitted historic preservation commission review applications for accuracy and completeness.

• Recommends plan modifications and requests additional information as needed to bring applications into compliance with applicable regulations.

• Prepares written review comments on historic preservation commission review applications.

Source: City of Geneva

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