In the end, the battle over creating a historic district in Yalecrest proved so nasty, brutish and long that the Salt Lake City Council decided to revise the process. It also decided to seek the views of property owners through a nonbinding vote. That's a good idea.
The goal of the whole exercise is to preserve historic neighborhoods or just plain nice, older neighborhoods from demolitions, outsized remodels and McMansions. The new process can lead to a historic district or landmark site, or it can lead to something less restrictive called a character conservation district.
In both cases, property owners can start the ball rolling by circulating a petition. If 15 percent of property owners within the proposed district sign petitions within six months, the Historic Landmark Commission and the Planning Commission write reports and hold hearings. Ballots would then be mailed to all property owners of record, who would have 30 days to vote for or against the district. If a simple majority supports designation, then a simple majority vote of the City Council could create it. If less than a simple majority of property owners favors a district, then a two-thirds vote of the City Council would be required to create a district.
As you can see, this is not a pure democracy. The City Council could create a district even if a majority of property owners voted against it. But zoning by referendum is not a good idea, either, because sometimes the public interest should trump the wishes of property owners.
A petition to designate a district also could be started by the mayor or by a majority of the City Council, but the same signature and voting processes for property owners would apply.
The issue boils down to property rights. Absolutists hold that they should be able to build anything on their property. Preservationists reply that a monstrosity on one lot degrades the value of the properties around it. The details of the limitations on remodels or new construction within a historic district or character conservation district determine where along the spectrum between those two extremes an acceptable middle ground might lie.
There are two advantages of a vote by property owners. First, it gauges opinion. Second, the details of proposed restrictions could be mailed with the ballot so that property owners could read and assess how they would be affected. That should lead to more informed opinions and votes by the people most affected. This may not prevent neighborhood warfare, but it's an improvement.
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