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Proposed Buffalo preservation law would extend deadlines for landmark status

The Buffalo Preservation Board and the Common Council would have more time to consider granting local historic landmark status to buildings targeted for demolition in legislation introduced Tuesday in the Common Council.

The financial implications to an owner or developer to stabilize a property if it were landmarked would also be considered in the amendment to a city ordinance proposed by Niagara Council Member David Rivera and Fillmore Council Member Mitch Nowakowski.

Rivera cited the  February demolition of the Ernest Franks House at 184 W. Utica St. – torn down by a developer two days after the Buffalo Preservation Board unanimously recommended landmark status and before the Common Council had a chance to weigh in – as a catalyst for the proposed changes.

The legislation would give the Preservation Board 45 days after a historic landmark application is received to render its recommendation to the Council, instead of the current 30 days from when a demolition permit is received by the Department of Permit and Inspection Services.

"We felt 45 days was important," Nowakowski said. "The Preservation Board had said 30 days was problematic. The additional 15 days will give them an opportunity to take a fair look at it."

The Council would then have 62 days to reach its decision while the demolition moratorium is in effect. It would also be able to approve, deny or for the first time modify a landmark application.

That allows the review process to extend up to 107 days if necessary.

In a major change, the Preservation Board, for the first time, would also have to consider "the ability to stabilize the property at a reasonable cost to the owner/developer" among several proposed changes. The Council would also be able to weigh "the property owner's reasonable expectation on investment" in reaching a decision.

The proposed changes drew a negative reaction from the city's two leading preservation organizations.

"It's good to get the ball rolling," said Tim Tielman, Campaign for Greater Buffalo History, Architecture, & Culture's executive director. "But as it stands, the legislation doesn't address a lot of the problems that caused the Franks House to be demolished, and may cause new, unintended problems."

Jessie Fisher, executive director of Preservation Buffalo Niagara, also expressed disappointment.

"While we appreciate the Council members' placing a statutory pause on permits while landmark status is being considered, there is far more that is troubling in this proposed amendment than is helpful," Fisher said.

"We are looking forward to working with them to create an improved amendment that actually protects Buffalo's historic building stock," she said.

Both organizations object to the Preservation Board having to weigh financial considerations in assessing a property's historic value, something each said the board lacked the authority to do. The current ordinance allows owners of landmark properties to appeal board decisions to the Council.

Nowakowski said a homeowner's ability to invest in or maintain a property to the standard required by landmarking needed to be considered in reaching a decision.

Rivera and Nowakowski emphasized the legislation, which was assigned to the Legislation Committee on Tuesday for further review, is only a starting point.

"We put together a document that can be amended or changed," Rivera said. "If we can perfect this legislation and make it better, that's what we are willing to do.

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