Preservation confrontation
Norcross removes historic property protection ordinance for the second time in 20 years

NORCROSS - For the second time in about 20 years, Norcross city leaders have adopted an ordinance designed to protect historic properties, then later removed that same ordinance from the books.

The first time it happened was in the late 1980s, after Norcross acquired its National Registry listing. The second time was in January of this year.

City council members passed the most recent historic preservation-enabling ordinance in August 2006, paving the way for a Historic Preservation Commission to be formed and a historic resources survey to be done. Norcross residents paid $25,000 for the survey, performed by the Teracon company and completed in August 2007. Teracon identified about 250 historic properties in Norcross.

In January, on a motion by Mayor pro tem Jeff Allen, council members deleted the city's historic preservation ordinance from the books. As a result, the Historic Preservation Commission, a volunteer group of residents who have logged hundreds of hours in educational classes and seminars, was deconstituted.

"We were floored, totally taken by surprise," said Anne Webb, president of Save Historic Norcross. "We see now that the leadership of the city is just not for historic preservation. They vote 5-0 to establish an ordinance, spend $25,000 of the taxpayers' money and when 10 or 15 people speak out against preservation, they say they don't want it."

According to Webb, it's not just historic structures at risk in Norcross. There are three cemeteries without protection any more, including one pre-Civil-War black cemetery with several unmarked graves.

Regarding the number of people who spoke out against historic preservation in January, "I think people were just getting frustrated, in effect saying, 'Don't give us one more level of government to have to deal with,'" said Pierre Levy, a former member of the Historic Preservation Commission and owner of a historic house in Norcross. "It's the old 'not in my backyard' way of thinking. Everyone wants to preserve the city's history, but not when it affects them."

City's take

"It's a complex issue," Norcross Mayor Bucky Johnson said. "I'm in favor of historic preservation when we're talking about preserving the character and feel of the city."

Ordinances, Johnson said, are not the only way to do that.

"My position on this when I was campaigning was that I wanted to hear what the people affected by this ordinance had to say. What I heard was that the ordinance as it was written was not what people wanted."

The city's Architectural Review Board, said Johnson, is already in place and considers historic properties in a different manner than it does other properties.

"There really wasn't anything broken with the system that was already in place," Johnson said.

When asked whether city officials plan to revisit the matter of drafting a third ordinance, Johnson said there are two proposals on the table now that have merit and will be considered.

"First, there's been talk of forming a voluntary historic district made up of historic home owners. Second, Councilman Keith Shewbert has suggested having an Historic Preservation Commission member work in an advisory capacity with the Architectural Review Board to assist property owners. I think they're both very good ideas."

Educating residents

Webb maintains that if the Historic Preservation Commission were to be involved in the review process for any historic property - whether a remodeling project or demolition - people would see that the ordinance and its protections are not restrictive.

"We would have overseen the character and preservation of the entire community, not just specific properties," Webb said. "The commission was strictly an advisory committee, not a penal organization."

Councilman Charlie Riehm, who has consistently supported preservation efforts in Norcross, feels that resident and even council opposition to preservation measures is due in part to a perception that historic properties in the city haven't yet seen any real pressure.

Riehm and Levy have discussed how to best approach the matter of building support for historic preservation among residents and council members.

"We need to build a consensus of homeowners that will support an ordinance and start by forming a small district of contiguous properties. When we have a large group of them, a proposed ordinance and a well-defined district, we'll approach council again."

In the meantime, Riehm said, this group would be a public advocate for historic preservation.

With that plan in mind, Levy said he is planning to start a sort of "homeowners association" composed of historic property owners, much like the association to which Johnson referred.

"These people really want to protect their properties," Levy said.

Anne Webb said she'll continue speaking publicly about historic preservation, as she feels educating people is the best way to garner support.

Norcross Community Development Director Jennifer Peterson said there are safeguards in place now that provide additional protection for historic structures in the city.

"While we don't currently have an historic district outlined by the city, there are properties here that are listed in the National Registry. Our city code says that if you want to demolish one of the properties found in the National Registry, there has to be a hearing and a vote by city council. That's been the practice of the city for years."

Peterson also believes there is a strong possibility the issue of historic preservation will be revisited by city leaders.

"There's a lot of discussion about historic preservation at council meetings and at the retreat we recently attended," Peterson said. "We're all on board with preserving the history and character of the city. We just need to find out what works for Norcross."

Mayor Johnson and city council members will consider whether to allow demolition of a historic house at 35 Williams St. at the April council meeting. The matter was considered in February, then postponed until April so council members could gather more facts about the property. The house, locally known as the Cook's Cottage, apparently dates back to the 1890s and was the residence of the Colonel Jones family's cook.