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Tony Jones

Interesting article. We just went through Irvington Historical Design review this summer. It's important to note that it's not just a problem of fees, the statutory requirements also impose significant project delay (minimum 6 weeks, up to 8) or longer if there is an appeal; which the neighborhood association gets to file at no cost whereas it is additional cost if the homeowner requests. To me, this creates an unnecessary element of uncertainty in the mind of a homeowner wishing to make an improvement. As your article suggests the whole process currently serves as a disincentive in terms of encouraging small improvements which is all that a lot of residents can afford. The fees are in addition to the standard BDS permit costs so it's a double whammy in terms of encouraging non-permited work. As far as the fees themselves are concerned, someone has to pay for the workflow that the regulations impose. I always figure $100/hr if the city has to perform work. Having gone through the process now I can easily see how it takes 10/20 hours for the city to service an application. If BDS doesn't cost-recover this, then the cost needs to come from the city's general fund. Finally; in my particular situation BDS warned me that I would have some interesting interactions with the Irvington neighborhood association historical committee regarding the presence of existing non-historical elements on my ("modest" as it was described in the city filing) property which were unrelated to my proposed change. From your article it sounds like perhaps the association is realizing that they need to be a bit more pragmatic in their approach although this feeling is tempered a little by their reply to a letter published in last months neighborhood newsletter.

Brian Libby

A comment emailed from Jeff Joslin:

As one who oversaw the Design Review process over 15 years, I also participated in the expansion of Design Review throughout the City, and the ongoing fee discussion. I thought I’d offer a little more history and perspective

During the early days of the process, there was little attention given to specific fees for various permitting activities. This was true for three reasons: 1) little was happening, 2) fees were modest and largely subsidized by the general fund, and 3) the both land use and long range planning existed in the same bureau. This latter aspect deserves a paragraph unto its own.

Having all planning functions within the same bureau and budget had a number of advantages. Generally, when fee-generating activities were low, staffing and budgets could migrate towards other planning activities. Similarly, during otherwise budgetarily constrained periods, there was more internal flexibility in how banked funds could be applied. For examples: reserves from land use fees could support other planning activities, and unstipulated funds could move fluidly between functions as best served the economy and the bureau needs. This was particularly important as the City – and its bureaucracy – grew: political pressures on the general fund could leave any bureau short in a particular moment. Layoffs were not a desirable first-choice, as re-hiring and re-training is expensive and lengthy. A generally stabilized planning staff provided maximum flexibility and efficiency.

In the meantime, the City – and its expectations – grew. Design Review was expanded greatly. When I inherited the process in the early 90’s, it was the most general fund subsidized function in the City. When I left in 2008, it was self-supporting. While this unquestionably added to the cost of construction, it had one huge benefit: it decoupled the process from the budgetary politics of the City.

As for other districts and process elsewhere: this is a complex and slippery slope. Other processes elsewhere function very differently. We recently completed a survey of historic regulation and processes across Oregon as part of our work with the Historic Preservation League of Oregon to develop infill principles for National Register Historic Districts statewide. Let me assure you, not all review and regulations are created equal. Many of the processes and regulations elsewhere are minimal, and in no way resemble the effort, and the results, associated with Portland’s process.

If Portland were still just applying design review to downtown, we could afford to wildly subsidize it. Because neighborhoods have consistently included it in their community plans, the cost of subsidization would be unbearable.

Even if neighborhoods demanded more subsidy, it’s also no longer the subsidy-darling it once was: all bureaus and regulations today have complex constituencies, particularly when fighting for highly competitive funding. All programs that are general fund supported are vulnerable. For better or worse, the statutorily-driven timelines and associated effort are an unavoidable part of the expense. And for those in this time giving voice to the 99%, state law does not allow projects to be charged more for a review than it costs to administer it; therefore it’s also not possible to charge larger projects more in order to minimize fees for smaller ones.

I’d also add that; with the advent of sophisticated tracking mechanisms, cost-recovery analysis occurs annually. You get what you pay for.

I absolutely concur, along with the consistent bellowing voice of the Landmarks Commission during each legislative opportunity, that the fee associated with designating individual landmarks is unusual and unfortunate. We were never able to find a Council champion to bring this fee-recovery exception forward. I believe this to be an essential element does in particular that the preservation community could and should focus on. The argument has been that the incentives afforded landmarks balances this cost. This is obviously incomplete logic, as it only applies if the incentives are the reason owners are voluntarily subjecting their properties to protections and restrictions. It fails to account for the majority of historic property owners who are choosing to place limits on their property – and in many cases reducing remarket value in the process – because of their commitment to historic preservation. The public and environmental benefit of preservation is unassailable, and property owners should not be penalized for advancing that public purpose.

There are ways to minimize cost impacts for minor projects. The two-track system - allowing prescriptive standards instead of design review - is provided in all the areas that state statute allows. Numerous exemptions have been crafted to allow modest or prescribed improvements to be exempt from review. As there’s clearly support for the necessity and benefits of historic district, perhaps attention might focus on the potential for additional district-specific exemptions as a means to lessen the burden and minimize compliance disincentives?

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