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Preservaton Debate Brings Scrutiny to Landmark Commission

By Suzanne Sprague

DALLAS – (Ambient outdoor sounds: a lawnmower, birds, etc. )

Art Rousseau, Swiss Avenue Resident: And it's those windows that you're seeing right there.

Suzanne Sprague, KERA 90.1 Reporter: When Art Rousseau wanted to rebuild his fire- damaged carriage house in 1998, he needed approval from the Dallas Landmark Commission. Rousseau lives on Swiss Avenue, one of the city's most celebrated historic districts, and there are rules about design choices such as exterior paint, landscaping and windows.

Rousseau: I said I wanted to put vinyl clad aluminum windows that look like wood so it would be more appropriate. I was told that that was not right, that I had to go back in with wooden windows, because that was more in line with what would have been there originally.

Sprague: Rousseau complied with the Landmark Commission's order. But neither he nor some of his neighbors thought it was fair.

Rousseau: And that's why we as a group on the street, for the first time, have started saying, "No." And that's why you're seeing sort of an active participation by a lot of people in the street to get things changed, because we're tired of personal interpretations.

Sprague: Rousseau and some other historic district residents have asked the City Council to scale back the Landmark Commission's powers. They first raised their concerns when the Council began considering stricter federal guidelines for historic homes and giving the City Plan Commission power to hear appeals of Landmark Commission decisions. Landmark Commission Member Virginia McAlester defends her colleagues.

Virginia McAlester, Landmark Commission: I guess the Landmark Commission I see is really one that very much tries to work with the people who own historic properties. We've always tried to send out architects and experts with some background to help them so that when they get to the Landmark Commission, everyone's on the same page.

Sprague: But some critics, like Munger Place resident and Realtor Peggy Walker, have told the Council this process is flawed.

Peggy Walker, Realtor and Munger Place Resident: What we're seeing is if you use the picked architect, you go right through on the consent agenda. If you are a friend, you get to do what you want. The whole thing is, I think someone is using the word cronyism.

Sprague: The preservation community says these concerns trouble only a small portion of historic district residents. Veletta Forsythe Lill, who is often considered the City Council's strongest supporter of historic preservation, points out fewer than ten of the Landmark Commission's 5,000 decisions over the past 20 years have been appealed.

Veletta Forsythe Lill, Member, Dallas City Council: I think any board that has the ability to say "no" will end up being criticized, because when you disagree, it's easy to take a personal attack. And these folks have to say "no" sometimes; and it's a matter of color, design, the kinds of things people tend to be sensitive about.

Sprague: The City recently said Commission members could not sit on neighborhood task forces that monitor historic properties, in an effort to reduce questions over conflict of interest. The Council will vote on that measure later today. But it's likely some debate will also surface over what powers the Commission should hold. For KERA 90.1, I'm Suzanne Sprague.