Undelivered Georgia Senate historic preservation testimony

I was supposed to testify yesterday (March 21, 2012) before the Georgia Senate Judiciary Committee on an amendment that was to have been attached to a land use bill. The amendment would have added language to the bill eliminating historic district subdivision review from Georgia’s historic preservation commissions.

A bill with the same language had been defeated in February 2012 by a House Judiciary subcommittee. I had testified twice before that body in opposition to the bill, then known as HB 802. At yesterday’s hearing, the hearing began and the chairman called for testimony. The first person to speak in opposition was DeKalb County Dist. 2 Commissioner Jeff Rader. Rader prefaced his testimony by stating that he was there to speak against an amendment (historic preservation) that had yet to be attached to the bill.

The chairman interrupted Rader’s testimony and informed him that there were no plans to attach any additional language to the bill, which covered pre-existing covenants and zoning laws. At that point Rader left the witness table and no further testimony was taken. Since my testimony had been prepared and distributed to the committee members by Georgia Rep. Stephanie Stuckey Benfield, I didn’t want to let it go to waste. The un-delivered testimony is reprinted below.

Testimony of Dr. David Rotenstein
Georgia Senate Judiciary Committee Hearing
HB 728
March 21, 2012

Good afternoon, for the record my name is David Rotenstein. I am a Decatur resident with a Georgia State University B.A. and a doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania. I began my historic preservation career 28 years ago as an archaeologist for the Georgia Department of Transportation. Since then I have worked as a consultant, teacher, and as the chairman of a suburban Washington, D.C., county’s historic preservation commission facing development pressures similar to those in the Atlanta metropolitan area and other areas in Georgia.

I have been asked by my historic preservation colleagues and Druid Hills neighbors to testify in opposition to amendments to HB 728 that would weaken historic preservation regulation in Georgia.

I have testified before the House Judiciary subcommittee twice before in opposition to proposed legislation that would accomplish the same goals as the proposed amendment you are considering today. As I understand it, a Druid Hills Historic District property owner is seeking relief from the legislature because the courts have ruled against him in his efforts to subdivide his historically designated property.

Local historic districts, like Druid Hills, are carefully considered areas that are created through local legislative acts authorized under historic preservation ordinances enabled under state law. These areas include buildings, structures, sites, and objects that contribute to the district’s significance. They are the solids, voids, and spatial relationships that convey information about the district’s significance. Everything within the district is by definition and by legislation designated historic.

All historic districts have legally defensible boundaries and clearly articulated criteria for historic designation. These criteria include architectural significance and historical significance. An architecturally significant district is important because its built environment and unbuilt, but designed environment – landscapes – has important things in it. A historically significant district is important because of its historical associations with important people or events that shaped our history.

Historic preservation commissions, which by law must include professionals in history, architecture, archaeology, and other preservation fields, as well as lay people and professionals in real estate and the law, are the bodies best equipped to make decisions about subdivision in historic districts. Subdivision creates new spatial relationships and land use patterns that facilitate the construction of new buildings and structures that may or may not be compatible with historically designated buildings and spaces.

Since this proposed legislation has its roots in the Druid Hills Historic District, I would like to briefly illustrate why lots without buildings on them inside the district contribute to the district’s architectural and historical significance. Druid Hills was first conceived as a designed residential suburb with roads, parks, and lots for buildings laid out in a carefully considered way by some of the world’s pioneer master landscape architects, including Frederick Law Olmsted’s firm. Development of Druid Hills began in the early twentieth century. Its owner – the Druid Hills Corporation – in the absence of zoning laws acted in what the firm considered its and the public’s interest by tightly regulating land use, lot size, setbacks, and architecture through restrictive deed covenants.

The company’s owners and their families were subject to the same restrictions as outside buyers. Walter T. Candler (1885-1967) was a prominent Georgian and Emory University benefactor. In 1914 Candler bought the first of two tracts from Druid Hills in an irregular area straddling Peavine Creek between Oxford Road and North Decatur Road. This first tract was a small rectangular parcel west of the creek. Three years later, on January 25, 1917, Candler bought a larger tract that spanned the creek and filled in the entire area between Oxford Road and North Decatur Road. This c. 34-acre area in 1923 became the Lullwater Subdivision.

Druid Hills restricted development to residential use and each house had to cost greater than $7,500. In addition to standard setbacks and use restrictions, the deeds included a clause prohibiting further subdivision. In 1923, Druid Hills released Candler from the restriction prohibiting subdivision and he was then clear to begin selling lots in the Lullwater Subdivision.

When Candler sold two of his lots in 1924, two subdivision plats were prepared: one creating three lots facing Oxford Road at its intersection with Emory Road and another with three lots facing Emory Road. The ultimate lot configurations determined the orientation and placement of the buildings that ultimately were built.

In my earlier testimony before the House subcommittee, I used a musical analogy that I had deployed in hearings while serving on the Montgomery County, Maryland, HPC in cases where property owners in historic districts like Chevy Chase and Kensington wanted to subdivide their properties. I compared the cultural landscape to a song. In music, the notes are held together by the breaks, silence. Without these breaks, the songs would fall apart. The same is true for historic residential suburbs and other cultural landscapes: If you remove the voids, the open spaces, the whole disintegrates.

I respectfully request that you reject the amendment to this bill that would remove subdivision regulation in historic districts from historic preservation commissions. The amendment would be contrary to all accepted historic preservation practice and theory and would diminish the integrity of locally designated historic districts throughout Georgia. It would not be in the public interest.

Thank you and I will attempt to answer any questions you may have.

© 2012 D.S. Rotenstein