Archive for Monday, October 8, 2001

Kansas environs law unique

State protects both historical properties and surrounding area

October 8, 2001


Kansas is the only state with laws to protect the "environs" or that which is near buildings on the National Register of Historic Places.

But Lawrence has successfully proved that the state guidelines for preserving historic buildings leave room for exactly opposite conclusions.

The controversy over proposed demolition of houses in the Oread Neighborhood is the case in point.

In August, the Campus Historic Preservation Board unanimously approved the demolitions in August.

Last month, the city's Historic Resources Commission unanimously rejected the destruction.

"They're charged with using the same guidelines," said Dennis Enslinger, the city's historic resources administrator, of the two boards.

How could they come to exactly opposite findings using the same state guidelines?

"There's always interpretation in those guidelines," Enslinger said.

The approval process

The historic review boards must approve Kansas University's plans for replacing the houses with scholarship halls because some of the properties are within the "environs" of two historic buildings Spooner Hall at KU and the Usher House at 1425 Tenn.

The "environs" of historic buildings are generally deemed to include everything within 500 feet of them in a city or 1,000 feet, if the structure is outside a city. But they can extend farther than that, depending on the project.

Under state law, decisions on environs must focus on what will be put in the demolished structures' place. In this case, KU wants to build scholarship halls, though the university hasn't prepared formal plans.

Enslinger said he thought the city review board wanted to wait and see the plans before deciding whether to approve them.

The city and campus boards will meet later this month to discuss the proposal. It's the first time the groups have met to deal with an issue of overlapping jurisdictions.

Though Kansas is the only state with laws protecting an historic building's environs, other states allow their city governments to enforce similar protections.

Sometimes, a change in environs affects property values. But in the Oread neighborhood case, more attention has been focused on protecting the buildings' historical value.

Historical value

"Environs are significant in that you value historic property not only because of the property itself but because of the context it is in," said Ramon Powers, executive director of the Kansas State Historical Society.

Enslinger offers this example: The U.S. Parks Service has begun tearing down visitor centers at some Civil War battlefields to make the sites look more like they did when the North and South fought there.

"This helps play a role in understanding how the property was used and what it looked like in a larger context," he said.

Much of the debate over the Oread proposal has centered on how the demolitions would affect the neighborhood, not how they would affect Spooner Hall and the Usher House.

But Janet Gerstner, a neighborhood resident who has spearheaded preservation efforts, said the decline of older homes in the neighborhood is having a gradual impact on the value of the historic buildings.

"To me," she said, "they're the same issue, because the neighborhood is the environs of the two structures, totally for the Usher House and halfway for Spooner Hall, since its back is to the neighborhood and the front is to campus."

Steve Jansen, historian for the Watkins Community Museum of History, said like the 1965 razing of Fraser Hall at KU, the Oread debate has people in Lawrence talking about preservation issues. No matter how the issue ends up, he said, that is a positive development.

"This (Lawrence) has been marketed as a university community with a special historical ambiance," he said. "At some point, we need to quantify what's going on here. It's a little bit here and a little bit there.

"At some point, you begin to lose what it is that you've had. I can't tell you at what point it changes."

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