8/15/15: Recent government action on historic preservation has been decidedly mixed. The results of the 2015 State Legislature saw some positive outcomes, but also an extremely harmful attack on the State’s preservation laws, while the City & County of Honolulu affirmed its preservation incentive program.
In the anti-preservation area, Governor David Ige signed HB830 into law on July 10, enacting it as Act 224. The Act creates an exemption from historic preservation review for proposed projects on privately-owned, single-family detached dwelling units or townhouses, unless they are listed on the register of historic places or located in a historic district. The exemption from HRS 6E-42 does not differentiate between dwellings and townhouses that have the inherent characteristics that mark historic properties (“eligible properties”) from those that have reached the age for consideration but otherwise lack historic merit (“non-eligible properties”).
Historic Hawai‘i Foundation testified against the measure throughout the legislative session. The exemption treats one property type— single family detached dwelling units and townhouses —differently than all other property types, which is arbitrary and capricious. Act 224 removes fair access to the State’s preservation program and its protection for historic properties based on factors unrelated to the inherent characteristics or merit of the historic property, thus unfairly excluding home owners from equal treatment under the law. Excluding residential structures from the preservation program will inevitably lead to harm and destruction of these historic resources.
Currently, the marker of 50 years of age provides a bright line for all property types, and further evaluation of a property’s significance, historic integrity and other elements of eligibility for the register of historic places occurs through the process outlined in Hawai‘i Administrative Rules. Properties that have the inherent characteristics that comprise historic significance are provided with the opportunity to participate in the historic preservation program, leading to greater understanding, appreciation and protection for the architectural, social, economic, and cultural heritage of Hawai‘i.
HHF proposed a moderate approach would strike a balance between the extremes of either reviewing no project on any property, or reviewing every project on every property.
During the legislative process, Historic Hawai‘i Foundation sought to find a compromise solution that would retain protections for those properties eligible for designation on the State or National Registers of Historic Places, while eliminating reviews for those properties that were over 50 years old but otherwise lack historic significance or integrity. Another approach would have focused the review and comment process on those types of projects with the potential to adversely affect the character-defining features of historic properties, while eliminating reviews for minor project types.
Unfortunately, these amendments were not included in the final bill, leaving Act 224 as an overly-broad and ultimately harmful measure.
On the pro-preservation front, Governor Ige signed SB504 to enact Act 089, which directs the State Historic Preservation Division to conduct architectural surveys to identify properties eligible for listing on the Hawai‘i Register of Historic Places, and appropriates funds for that purpose. The bill also provides funds for SHPD to implement a data management plan for the digitization of its records.
HHF supported the bills to provide resources to the State Historic Preservation Division to complete the digitization of records and improve data management. This issue is an ongoing concern, and is part of the required corrective action to bring the State back into compliance with the National Historic Preservation Act and the conditions of the federal Historic Preservation Grant.
CB 28 (2015)
In June, the Honolulu City Council Budget Committee deferred action on Council Bill 28 after hearing from dozens of historic property owners and community stakeholders about the harmful effects that could result if the measure passed.
CB28 proposed to change the property tax exemption provided to historic residential properties by establishing the exemption at 50% of the assessed value, rather than the full exemption currently provided.
All four counties in Hawai‘i offer real property tax exemptions to provide owners of registered historic properties an economic incentive to preserve and protect these significant resources. The tax exemption allows owners to have some financial relief in the face of economic pressure to demolish, subdivide, redevelop or otherwise destroy historic properties. Economic incentives for historic preservation are vitally important, and the property tax exemption program helps to make preservation of our historic districts and buildings affordable when they may otherwise be at risk.
In 2011, City & County of Honolulu examined the historic residential property tax exemption program in detail, which led to amendments to provide for increased clarity, transparency and improved enforcement within the program. The Real Property Assessment Division then promulgated rules per the amended ordinance, and historic home owners have either come into compliance or have been removed from the program, either voluntarily or through enforcement action. With these recent changes and improvements, the program appears to be working well as an incentive to preserve and protect historic homes.
At the public hearing on June 17, Council Budget Committee Chair Ann Kobayashi acknowledged the ways that enforcement and compliance have improved since Council reviewed the program a few years ago. She noted that Historic Hawai‘i Foundation and a group of historic homeowners are willing to look at further improvements and suggestions. The committee decided to defer further action on the bill for now.
Mahalo nui to the preservation community and historic homeowners for providing testimony in opposition to the bill, and providing information to the councilmembers about why the heritage of Hawai‘i is important and should be supported.