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Boise considering changes to stop illegal demolition of historic homes

A partially-finished construction site sat quietly in a corner of the North End for most of 2020 in the midst of a building boom.

Last March, a project near the corner of 5th and Sherman streets, made waves with neighbors and historic preservation activists when the aging home on the site in a historic district was demolished without a permit. City inspectors stopped work on the project and it went through multiple hearings at the Historic Preservation Commission and, finally, Boise City Council before the homeowner the city allowed the owner to proceed with the project in December.

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This is the latest of a handful of cases when property owners in Boise historic districts demolished structures or took down trees without proper permits. This issue, although relatively infrequent, raised alarms with residents and preservation groups, like Preservation Idaho, that the City of Boise is not doing enough to enforce its own laws in the historic districts. They say if this continues it could lead to more illegal demolitions if there isn’t enough of a deterrent.

Some city officials and contractors argue most property owners are acting in good faith and additional education is needed to ensure projects don’t run afoul of the rules. There is also support from some contractors for more consistency in decisions from the city and its’ Historic Preservation Commission on what is, and isn’t, appropriate in the high-demand historic neighborhoods filled with small, century-old homes.

This situation is part of a larger discussion around demolition rules at the City of Boise. On Tuesday, Boise City Council approved a new demolition ordinance requiring administrative review by staff for multi-family housing, commercial, office, industrial space or single-family homes built more than 50 years ago outside of historic districts to be demolished.

A unanimous vote with testy discussion

On December 1, Boise City Council voted unanimously to grant property owner Steve Vaught permission to finish building his new home on 5th Street. But, it wasn’t a joyous vote.

Council members agreed that Vaught’s proposed home for the site met all of the guidelines and the Historic Preservation Commission’s denial of the project was not based on the code. Despite the approval for the new project, three of them expressed frustration about the demolition and called on the City of Boise to convene a work session in the future and look at changes to stop something like this from happening again.

Council Member Holli Woodings called the demolition of the contributing home “borderline tragic” and Council Member Patrick Bageant said the owner’s actions were “a flagrant disregard of the law.” In his comments, Bageant said the city should change its rules to make it “terrifying” for someone to demolish a home in a historic district without a permit in the future.

In Boise, demolition of a home in a historic district without a permit can result in a fine or a misdemeanor. Neither was imposed on Vaught in this case or any other instances of this in the past, like a demolition of a home in the East End last summer or a recent case of tree removal without permits on 19th Street.

The site of a partially demolished historic home on Jefferson Street in Boise’s East End on Aug. 12. Courtesy of Preservation Idaho. Photo: Margaret Carmel/BoiseDev

City spokesman Seth Ogilvie said the city did not charge property owners with misdemeanors or levy $1,000 fines because the cost to go through the process is more than what the offender would pay. Instead, he said the city favors other measures.

“The city has looked at procedural things and education because the permitting process allows the city to slow down a building project, which is more of a discouragement to illegally demoing something than a fine would ever be,” Ogilvie said. “The reason fines have not been offered is there are better ways of dissuading people from demolishing things that are not supposed to be demolished.”

During the December 1 hearing about the 5th Street property, Vaught was frustrated at the city’s process and the multiple hearings in front of the Historic Preservation Commission after the home was demolished. He told the council he was continuing to contract with Litzinger Construction Company after the illegal demolition.

Vaught said he hoped for a better process to work with the city after contractors find deterioration on historic homes during renovations.

“This project has been delayed for 9 months due to the historical commission’s dilatory decisions and dubious direction,” he said at the hearing. “This is more costly than any fine that could have been imposed on me at the time of the stop work order.”

More knowledge could prevent conflicts

The city has not scheduled a work session on potential changes to demolition rules in the historic district, but Senior Historic Preservation Planner Ted Vanegas said new measures are in the works.

Vanegas and his team have been working on a new outreach campaign to better inform property owners and contractors about what is appropriate in historic districts. It includes new informational videos on the city’s website, meetings with neighborhood associations, the Building Contractors Association and sending mailings to residents in historic districts with their utility bills.

The historic districts are bustling with more activity than ever before. Vanegas said a few years ago, five applications per meeting of the Historic Preservation Commission was a lot. Now, the volunteer board often hears between eight and ten applications per meeting. He said the goal for the new education measures is for the city to stop playing defense and be more proactive to prevent conflicts.

“These people want to live in the North End and the East End so there’s a ton of growth happening there and people who just don’t understand the rules,” he said. “That’s the majority of it. People come in and they don’t understand what it means to live in a historic district. I think that’s more common than people just breaking the rules.”

Vanegas said the city is also going to start specific outreach to tree services after a case where a property owner at 717 N 19th Street in the North End took down several mature trees without a permit. Property owner Patrick Gerety testified at the March 29th Historic Preservation Commission meeting about his application that he only took down the trees after a local tree service told him a permit wasn’t necessary.

The site of 717 19th Street in the North End where several mature trees were removed without a permit. Margaret Carmel/BoiseDev

The Historic Commission voted 5-3 to deny his project, which included giving retroactive approval to remove the trees and permission to relocate the Boise Canal on the property to make room for a new home on the parcel. The application has not yet been appealed to Boise City Council, but it still can be. 

What will the city do about it?

There are a range of ideas on how to address illegal demolitions that city staff and council members are exploring.

Vanegas said other parts of the country levy much higher fines for illegal demolitions, or in California breaking preservation rules can result in a years long period before anyone can file for another building permit on the impacted property.

City Council Member Patrick Bageant, who called for stricter enforcement in December, said he wants more consequences for those who violate the demolition rules. He is looking into requiring fines, the possibility of revoking licenses for contractors to do business in Boise if they are in violation or putting a year moratorium on building on the property.

“The point is to deter people who are deliberately avoiding the law and cheating and being bad people,” he said, about tougher rules on violators. “It’s not to punish people who make a mistake or harm people whose heart is in the right place and just accidentally screwed up. If the language of the ordinance was written to give that flexibility there will be some people who cheat and plead ignorance, but that’s better than bashing the skulls of well-intentioned people.”

City Council President Elaine Clegg favored the additional education for property owners and builders Vanegas is working on, as well as the possibility of a certification process for contractors to work in the historic districts.

“It’s going to be pretty simple,” she said about a possible certification course. “It’s going to be about ‘here’s the rules and we want to make sure you know the rules’. It’s to everyone’s benefit. (Contractors are) going to save time and save money and know how to do it well rather than making mistakes and going back to fix them.”

Builders want more predictability

It’s not just frustrated neighbors hoping for a change to the rules.

Mark Joffe, with Kai Homes, has been building and remodeling homes in the North End and other historic districts for almost nine years. He wants to follow the regulations and save as much of historic structures as possible, but Joffe said sometimes the decisions made by the city’s Historic Preservation Commission are unpredictable and difficult to comply with.

For example, he said it can be difficult to get approved to build a larger home in the North End even if it isn’t out of proportion with the rest of the street.

“Right now we’re stuck in this era that we want everything to look the same because ‘they always built small buildings in the North End’, but technology in building has changed significantly,” he said. “There’s nothing in the regulations that says everything needs to say small, but we’re stuck in this mindset that if it’s small we should do everything we can to keep it small.”

Joffe said he and some other builders who want to be responsible have been meeting with the city and suggesting changes. He did not name the other builders and wanted to keep the details of their proposals vague for now while they were meeting with staff, but he said the discussions have been “encouraging.”

Boise Historic Preservation Commission Chairman Cindy Montoto said the commission’s decisions can be frustrating to applicants because it involves individual homeowners and their residences, but the commissions must evaluate each application and decide how it should be approached one at a time.

“We’re there to impartially view every single application on an individualized basis,” Montoto said. “Sometimes what the commission decides to approve in one case may have similarities to another case, but because the cases are different the decisions can seem unpredictable or arbitrary.”

Preservationists hope for more districts

Preservation Idaho Executive Director Paula Benson is hoping for changes too.

She says the city should take three actions to help curb destruction of historic structures and illegal demolitions before neighborhoods lose their character. Benson hopes the city will embark on new surveys of historic neighborhoods, instead of relying on decades old documents determining what is and isn’t historic.

Her organization is also on board with the concept of a certification class for contractors working on historic structures, which she said they have been pushing for over seven years. Benson says if contractors take the class and then still break the law, it is easier to levy a punishment because it cuts down on how much the perpetrator can claim they weren’t aware of the rules.

A historic home at 140 Main Street in downtown Boise that the Boise City Council opted to protect with a new historic district in a special August meeting in 2018. City officials heard from community members that the owner set it for demolition prior to the establishment of the district. Photo: Margaret Carmel/BoiseDev

Boise has 10 historic districts, but with the exception of the district established on an emergency basis to save a historic home on Main Street in 2018, Benson said the city hasn’t created a new district in over a decade. She hopes for more protected blocks, as well as enforcement of the laws Boise already has on the books to deter demolitions.

“There’s not really a disincentive for doing the wrong thing, whether it’s intentional or otherwise,” she said. “People apologize and well, you can’t replace what they’ve demolished and the city says ‘well we need to make a plan to move forward.’ What we really would like to see is the city be proactive and invest in updated surveys and designated historic districts where it seems appropriate to address the problem.”

Margaret Carmel - BoiseDev senior reporter
Margaret Carmel is a BoiseDev reporter focused on the City of Boise, housing, homelessness and growth. Contact her at [email protected] or by phone at (757)705-8066.

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