City of Pensacola Architectural Review Board under scrutiny

The City of Pensacola’s Architectural Review Board has been under scrutiny for the past two months. The City is being sued by developers because the ARB has tabled their request for demolition of a residence twice. Former Council President Maren Deweese has uncovered incidences when the ARB approved projects, but the property owners didn’t follow through with their approved plans. And the City Council is discussing changing the role of the ARB.

The Architectural Review Board approves or disapproves plans for buildings to be erected, renovated, or razed which are located, or to be located, within the historic districts, preservation districts, and the Governmental Center District. Its members are Ben Townes, Chair, Carter Quina, Vice-Chair, Nina Campbell, Michael Crawford, C. Ray Jones, George Mead, andSusan Campbell Hatler. They are appointed by the Pensacola City Council and supported by city staff.

Don Paro, Jr. and Olde City Developers, LLC have filed a Petition for Declaratory Judgment and Injunctive Relief filed by Don Paro, Jr. and Olde City Developers, LLC against the City of Pensacola and Bill Weeks, head of the city’s inspection services, regarding the plaintiffs’ request to demolition the John Sunday House. City Attorney Lysia Bowling responded, but offered no affirmative defenses. Mayor Hayward has already said that Bowling believes a demolition permit should be issued and has said the ARB cannot table items on its agenda. Read more.

Maren Deweese has pointed out on her blog that how a property owner was given permission to demolition a house in the historic district with the condition the home be rebuilt as it was (address 417 E. Government St.). The property is now a driveway.

City Council Discussion
At a workshop on June 27, the Pensacola City Council looked at combining the Gateway Review with the ARB and talked about giving more review and approval responsibility to city staff. Unfortunately, only three members attended the workshop: Charles Bare, Sherri Myers and Andy Terhaar.

Bare said that he had discussed with city staff the possibility of eliminating the Gateway Review Board and have its function handled by the Architecture Review Board. He was also concerned that the ARB has delayed some items for long periods of time.

He described an ARB meeting that he attended:

“They were talking about this guy who just wanted to screen his porch, and then they were asking him, “I’d rather have it on the outside. Screen the outside of the porch than on the inside,” and they were talking about all the different colors of paint. I don’t understand why you can’t just pick a color of paint that is allowable, and just go with that.”

Bare said. “I think they’re a little bit too prescriptive in the way they do things, and I’m just not convinced that that’s really serving the citizens well to have that level of scrutiny.”

Councilman Andy Terhaar concurred.

“I agree with you that they’ve got to the point now where they’re picking the colors for the property owner,” he said. “I don’t like that…They’re overstepping their bounds as far as looking at the code and saying, ‘The code says do this. Okay, these plans are within the code. They’re approved.’”

Terhaar said the citizens have become upset with how the ARB operates.

“I want to get the point across to especially this Board, and the Gateway Review Board, that you’re not there to be a hindrance,” he said. “You’re there to help, and lately it’s becoming more, and more of people getting upset with the city because it’s their branch of the city.”

He added, “People are going, ‘The city’s not letting me build this on my property,’ and I understand if it’s a metal box that doesn’t (fit) that’s right next to a historical building, but if it’s a cottage, and it looks like anything else that’s going to be under here, then no reason why it shouldn’t just fly right through.”

Terhaar believes the Planning and Inspections departments should have more responsibility for reviewing and approving plans as opposed to the ARB.

“The ARB is approving everything from site layout to storm water, where the pond’s going to go, all the stuff,” he said. “A lot of times, they’re not engineers. There may be one on there, but there’s people on there who are making decisions that they don’t know what they’re talking about.”

He added, “It’s like sometimes you just got to trust that engineers and architects know what they’re doing and move forward. I don’t know how we can codify that, but it’s just more of a general sense that I get the sense from a lot of citizens that they’re getting frustrated with the city on a lot of things.”

Since only three council members were there, there was little that could be done. Bare suggested that the council review the code and be more specific about the ARB’s exact role.

Hayward’s Role
The voice missing is the executive branch. Mayor Hayward and City Attorney Bowling tried to overturn the ARB’s decision to table the demolition of the John Sunday House, but they faced a hearing with the Zoning Board of Adjustment because a citizen had filed a petition. The lawsuit put a stop to the hearing, and they aren’t fighting the lawsuit very hard, so Judge Bergosh is likely to rule against the city.

Where does the city go from here? The ARB is a committee formed by the City Council. However, the mayor provides the staff support. Why hasn’t an attorney been assigned to the ARB and other boards, including the Planning Board? If tabling isn’t a proper action for the ARB under city code, then an attorney should have caught the impropriety years ago.

Volunteers serve on these boards. They can only be as effective as the staff support they are given.

And above all, it’s the mayor’s responsibility to ensure the city codes are applied fairly and equally to all.