The recent battle between Kansas University and a neighborhood group about three houses in the 1300 block of Ohio Street could not have happened many other places in the nation.
Because of Kansas' unique historic preservation laws, neighborhood advocates and historic preservationists were able for most of this year to delay Kansas University's proposed demolition of the houses Â not because the structures were historic, but because they were near a historic building.
Now the state is reviewing those laws. And while property-rights advocates say some change is needed, historic preservationists fear they're about to lose a tool they use to save old buildings.
"It concerns me greatly," said Sally Hatcher, president of the Kansas Preservation Alliance.
State officials say they're in the earliest stages of reviewing the law, so it's premature for anyone to worry.
"It hasn't gone anywhere yet," said Christy Davis, who helps oversee cultural resources for the Kansas State Historical Society. "We'll continue to meet with stakeholders to take a look at it. Is this best for historic properties? Is this best for preservation overall?"
KU announced in spring 2001 its plan to tear down the three dilapidated, century-old houses on Ohio Street to make way for scholarship halls.
But under Kansas law, the university couldn't just knock down the buildings Â they were within 500 feet of the historic Usher House, 1425 Tenn., a structure on the National Register of Historic Places.
The law requires a review of any construction or demolition that close to a site on the register. Critics and proponents of the law say few states have similar legislation.
So KU had to go to the city's Historic Resources Commission and its own Campus Historic Preservation Board for a review. When those committees couldn't agree, the matter went to the State Historic Preservation Officer and, ultimately, to Gov. Bill Graves.
Before Grave's decision came down last month, though, the Kansas State Historical Society convened an Aug. 27 meeting of 17 historic preservation "stakeholders" Â historic officials from the state and bigger cities in Kansas, as well as preservation activists and property rights advocates Â to look at the law's impacts.
"It has nothing to do with the university project," Davis said. "There's been an interest statewide. We just wanted to get some input."
Those who favor a change say the current law hinders historic preservation efforts. Some property owners try to avoid a listing on the national register, they say, because they don't want the environs rules to affect their neighbors.
"It's a disincentive for people to list on the state register," Bill Yanek, a lobbyist for the Kansas Association of Realtors, said last week. He attended the Aug. 27 meeting.
And, Yanek said, property owners were concerned because nothing in the law requires notifications that a nearby building could go on the national register. That's unfair to the owners who would be affected, he said.
"Our members have land investments, but they don't necessarily watch every press release about every historic preservation effort," he said.
Some ideas floated at the Aug. 27 meeting Â termed by all involved as a brainstorming session Â included elimination of the environs review, placing a "sunset clause" on how long such a review would be needed after a site's listing on the register, and transferring more control of historic preservation to local governments.
But preservationists say most projects reviewed under the law are approved. The law doesn't prevent neighborhoods from changing, they say, but does require those changes to contribute to the historic feel of the neighborhood.
"Historic properties are better understood with some kind of context around them," said Dennis Enslinger, who also attended the Aug. 27 meeting. Enslinger is a planner in the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Office and the city's historic resources administrator.
'Sea of parking lots'
Michael Shaw, a KU professor on the boards of the Kansas Preservation Alliance and Lawrence Preservation Alliance, agreed a neighborhood's context matters.
Shaw said the law allowed preservationists to save an old Lutheran church at 11th and New Hampshire streets in the environs of the historic Douglas County Courthouse, as well as a portion of the building that houses Border's Books and Music at Seventh and New Hampshire streets, in the environs of The Eldridge Hotel.
"The environs legislation has been extremely beneficial," Shaw said. "Without it, you end up with one historic property in a sea of parking lots."
Davis said the state would convene another meeting on the matter late this month, but it won't be open to the public. She didn't offer a timeline for proposing legislation.
Stan Hernly, a Lawrence architect who attended the August meeting, said he could see the state moving toward more local control of the process Â including cities deciding whether they even want to do environs reviews.
"I think that, if in Lawrence, we want to work with an environs review of 500 feet, we should do that," Hernly said. "If Manhattan wants zero feet, they should do that. I don't know that there has to be a blanket distance set by the state, but I don't think it should be abandoned by the state either."