The question of what type of developments can be located next to historic structures — a question known to incite a few debates in Lawrence — soon will be asked less frequently.
Beginning July 1, a new state law is expected to more than cut in half the number of Lawrence properties that will require a historic preservation review as part of the development process.
“It is the loss of a planning tool,” said Lynne Braddock Zollner, the city’s historic resources administrator.
The new law eliminates the sometimes contentious state-mandated “environs review” for any project that is within 500 feet of a property listed on the Kansas or National Register of Historic Places.
Under the new law, the state’s historic preservation officer only will be required to review projects that directly impact listed properties. In other words, if you want to construct an addition onto a building listed on the National Register of Historic places, you’ll need the state review. If you want to build a fast-food restaurant on the property next to a historic structure, you won’t need the review.
Zollner said the change in the law "has created quite a bit of conversation in the historic preservation community."
But she said the new law won’t eliminate all environs reviews in Lawrence. That’s because the city also maintains a Lawrence Register of Historic Places. The Lawrence register calls for any development within 250 feet of a property on the local register to go through an environs review.
The local review, however, generally is considered less stringent. In addition to encompassing a smaller review area — 250 feet versus 500 feet — the local law also uses a different set of guidelines to determine if a nearby development is damaging the historic character of a neighborhood.
As a result, historic planners at City Hall are likely to have fewer projects to review. Zollner estimates that a historic resources review would be triggered by development on any of about 1,500 pieces of property in Lawrence. Prior to the state law change, there were about 3,200 pieces of property where development would have triggered a historic resources review.
Zollner, however, said much of the property in downtown Lawrence will be subject to a full-fledged environs review. That’s because much of downtown is listed as a national historic district. The state law requires properties in those nationally recognized districts to undergo state review. In Lawrence, those reviews actually are done by the city’s historic resources staff, which has a contract with the state preservation office to conduct the reviews.
The review process has been contentious at times. It played a major role in projects such as the proposed hotel at Ninth and New Hampshire streets, the Oread hotel, and the downtown building that formerly housed the Borders bookstore and currently is being used as the temporary library. Developers, at times, have argued that the review process has been too stringent and time consuming.
But it wasn’t developers who pushed for the change in the state law governing environs reviews. Instead, it was other cities. Kimberly Winn, deputy director of the League of Kansas Municipalities, said about a dozen communities had expressed concern over the years that the environs review process was making it more difficult to redevelop their downtown areas.
Winn said her organization found that Kansas was the only state in the country to have a state-mandated environs review process. Most states rely on local communities to create their own processes to protect the areas around historic properties.
“This isn’t an anti-preservation effort at all,” Winn said. “There is nothing in the law that would prohibit a community from establishing their own rules or limitations. To us, it was about local control.”
Patrick Zollner, deputy state historic preservation officer — and Lynne Zollner's husband — said most communities in Kansas don’t have any local laws on the books related to historic preservation reviews.
Lawrence is an exception, and Dennis Brown, president of the Lawrence Preservation Alliance, said it probably will become more important to try to convince property owners to have their historic properties added to the Lawrence Register of Historic places. There are several properties that are part of the national or state registers that aren’t on the local register because there currently are no financial incentives, such as tax credits, attached to the local register.