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Historic District expansion plan draws dozens to discussion

Dozens of downtown Elizabethton property owners attended an open house held by the Historic Zoning Commission History-Downtown-DSC01125-300x135to discuss a possible expansion of the historic district.
The commission has been discussing expanding the historic district to include East Elk Avenue and E Street from Lynn Avenue to Sycamore Street. The commission scheduled the open house to give the property owners time to discuss any concerns they had about the expansion and to gather more information on the historic district and HZC.
Commission Chair Sarah Baker said she was pleased with the number of people who attended the open house and felt it was a good step toward the expansion.
“I was interested in seeing this expansion happen because it serves as a way to keep and maintain property values in the district,” Baker said. “Property values tend to be higher for properties that are located in a historic zone or a preservation district. A third of the downtown is already in the historic zone and it looks great, not saying that the rest of the town doesn’t. It is just icing on the cake for properties to be in the historic district.”
Director of Planning and Development Jon Hartman provided a list of positives associated with being in the historic district.
He noted that the district protects the investments of owners and encourages better-quality design. Also, the district could impact the local economy by spurring tourism growth and enhancing business recruitment potential.
Hartman said since the plan for expansion had been announced, he had heard from people who were both in favor of the expansion and who were opposed to it.
“The ones who have been against it say they don’t want the extra bureaucracy telling them what they can or can’t do with their property,” Hartman said. “That is why we have meetings like these, so we can talk about their concerns and educate about what the historic district is really about.”
Hartman explained the historic district, and the HZC, were only concerned with the preservation of historic materials and the protection of the historic architectural features of the home. He said things like general maintenance on properties were not a concern of the commission, unless someone wanted to paint over or remove a historic fixture that was not deteriorated to the point that removal was necessary.
He said it is important for all of downtown to be in the historic district so the entire community could feel the impact of being in that type of protective zone.
“The downtown is historic, but part of downtown is in the historic district and part of downtown is not,” he said. “It is about preserving a way of life that had existed in town. There are people who can remember going into the Kress building downtown to go shopping. Those are landmarks of Elizabethton that need to be preserved.”
Some of the property owners who attended expressed concern that renovations would be expected on properties after the zone was expanded. Hartman said that would not happen. He said the only time the commission would get involved is if owner planned renovations to the structure. He said in extreme instances where the property was neglected and had fallen into disrepair, the city could step in to have the repairs completed.
“We don’t want the Historic Zoning Commission to be seen as the great overlord,” he said. “We want to open dialogue and tale about the concerns and desires of the downtown property owners.”
Some owners asked what good it would do to have the historic structures improved and saved, if the facades would be blocked by the canopies that covered the sidewalks. They also questioned if it would ever be possible to have the canopies removed.
Hartman said it was unlikely the canopies would be removed any time soon because the city had appropriated $50,000 to make repairs and renovations to them.
Downtown business owner John Huber pointed out that if the canopies were removed, many of the buildings would be in worse shape because of damage that had occurred to the facade where the canopies had been. He said it would take years for downtown to improve its appearance after that because it was unlikely all the property owners would work to repair that damage.
Hartman said the key to any such change would take time. He said it could take years to see the full potential of a historic zone expansion. He used Jonesborough as an example, saying it started work on its district in the 1960s.
“Eventually the benefit and the return would be seen,” he said.
The next step for the expansion will be a public hearing before the HZC on June 16 at 6 p.m. at City Hall. If it passes there, it will be presented to the Elizabethton Regional Planning Commission on July 3 at 6 p.m., and from there to City Council on July 10 at 6 p.m. Both of those meetings are also at City Hall.