Land Use and Zoning upholds appeal for Certificate of Appropriateness

Land Use and Zoning upholds appeal for Certificate of Appropriateness
Front elevation of home at 1776 Challen Avenue depicts proposed addition in the rear (lighter gray), which will rise approximately four feet above the center parapet of the original structure.

What some feared may be a precedent-setting move was realized at the Feb. 21 Land Use and Zoning Committee (LUZ) meeting when six councilmembers voted to uphold an appeal by Avondale resident Virginia “Ginger” Harris to add a two-story addition to her landmark 1909 home at the corner of Challen and Riverside Avenues.

District 5 Councilwoman Lori Boyer, an attorney in land use and environmental law, finance and construction management, was the sole dissenting vote. Boyer had put forth a motion to deny the appeal, but it did not receive a second by any of the other committee members.

The process for obtaining the Certificate of Appropriateness (COA) began last summer when Harris went before the Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission (JHPC) in August and was denied the COA on the basis the 28-foot-high, 2,100-square-foot addition would not be in scale with the original home. Harris, who purchased the 1776 Challen Ave. home in 1996, was also seeking to demolish the original garage, which is considered a contributing structure in the historic Riverside/Avondale district.

Harris was asked to go back to the drawing board and submit a revised design which would comply with historic standards, making the addition subordinate to the original structure. She met with the historic preservation commission again in November, submitting a two-foot reduction in height. The planning staff report stated, “the reduction of two feet from the addition is not enough to warrant a change in staff’s original recommendation [to deny] as the addition is still a two-story addition attached to a one-story landmark house,” so the commission upheld its original denial of the COA.

Speaking on behalf of Harris at the Feb. 21 public hearing, in addition to Paul Harden, her attorney, her Orlando-based architect, and her contractor, were half a dozen nearby neighbors, and more than a dozen friends and real estate associates from all over Northeast Florida, including St. Augustine and the Beaches. Most of the testimony spoke to Harris’ earlier significant renovations of and ongoing maintenance to her home.

Even those who opposed the addition agreed Harris had restored life to a run-down relic and continued to be a good neighbor with her property but stressed the issue needed to be reviewed according to criteria.

“The COA process is comprehensive and involves the input of multiple planning professionals, the staff researches the historic structure, performs site visits, analyzes the proposed work under the appropriate historic standards and drafts a staff report,” said former JHPC member and newly-elected RAP Board member Angela Schifanella, who is also an architect. “It is consensus opinion, thoughtful and thorough, and therefore has more merit and value than that of individual planner, even one working with the RAP organization.”

In addition to Schifanella, those speaking against the appeal were local historian Wayne Wood, founder of Riverside Avondale Preservation; current RAP Board Chair Nancy Powell; former RAP Executive Director Carmen Godwin; and Joe Miller and John Gallagher, both nearby neighbors of Harris.

“I believe in homeowner’s property rights but we all understand living in a historic district, there are some things that can’t be done in order to preserve the historic character of our homes and our neighborhood,” said Miller.

“If this is approved, it will call into question the existence of RAP, the Planning Department and the Historic Commission and their roles in providing recommendations and decisions,” he continued. “I think it will set a horrible precedent allowing people the grounds to proceed with lawsuits when their applications are denied.”

Following nearly 90 minutes of public comment, Sondra Fetner, assistant general counsel, spoke for nearly 45 minutes in defense of the JHPC’s decision to deny the COA.

Fetner noted the year after purchasing her home Harris voted in favor of establishment of Riverside and Avondale as a historic district, and stated Harris was aware of the landmark status of the home.

“The historical significance of this house is that it is quaint,” said Fetner to the LUZ committee. “This house stands for the development of this historic Avondale district. It’s the only house in the district that can date back to 1909.”

The seven-member LUZ Committee deliberated for 30 minutes, during which time Boyer made a motion to deny the appeal by upholding the JHPC’s decision.

“To decide because someone has great character testimony…and would do quality construction…are not the criteria for an addition to a historic landmark or structure. It may be what you want to see in any other district in the city but that’s not what the rules are about for a historic district or landmark,” Boyer said. “The point is we have as a body have decided there is a value to preserve the history someone can see, and experience what it was like once upon a time. That’s why we created the ordinance in the first place. There are very specific criteria and people know what they are getting into. It’s a different set of rules from every place else.”

There being no second to Boyer’s motion, District 11 Councilman Danny Becton made a motion to amend the resolution to uphold the appeal.

“I do not believe the façade will be compromised and will still remain prominent when looked at from the front of the house,” said Becton, who stated he felt the original plan at two feet higher would have “started to tip the scale in terms of ‘massive.’ I think it’s about the façade. The house is small in comparison to other structures nearby.”

District 2 Councilman Al Ferraro stated, “Having the neighbors weigh in was important, although I know that is not part of the criteria. I don’t believe anything I’ve heard tonight changes or harms the historic district. I think Ms. Harris is holding up to the standards and character of the home to the neighborhood.”

The committee voted 6-1 to uphold Harris’ appeal to be granted a Certificate of Appropriateness for her revised design, subject to approval by Planning and Development Department.

By Kate A. Hallock
Resident Community News

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