Frisco considers changes to historic zoning rules after pair of tough votes
December 14, 2017
Frisco is mulling changes to its historic zoning rules after a pair of high-profile developments raised concerns that builders might be able to use them to extract too many code waivers from the town in exchange for preserving old buildings.
The historic overlay zoning district has been on the books for decades but was rarely used until recently, when it was applied to a hotel project at Main Street's Foote's Rest property and the Deming Crossing residential development on Fifth Avenue.
In theory, the overlay can be used to reward developers for preserving buildings with historical value instead of razing them. But in practice, applying the designation has made some on Frisco's Town Council wary of horse-trading important zoning requirements for loosely defined historical assets.
The town council's contested approval of the zoning deal for Deming Crossing was a case in point, with some members deeply conflicted over granting bulk plane and deed restriction waivers in exchange for the developer fixing up and preserving an historic cabin.
On Tuesday, the council had a lengthy, sometimes tense work session with the Planning Commission and town staff to discuss refinements to the historic zoning process.
"I think most of council felt conflicted on Deming Crossing that we had a yes or no decision that frankly compromised our values on workforce housing and bulk plane encroachments, and we passed it because of the historic overlay," said councilwoman Deborah Shaner, who voted no on the project. "I think we all kind of thought, 'Man this stinks, we are having to pick between our values,' and that didn't feel good at all."
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Giving out waivers for building density and mass in exchange for preserving old buildings could also carry the unintended consequence of diminishing the prominence of the very building saved.
"On the more important buildings, if they are granted more waivers then that building could be dwarfed by bulk and 100 percent lot coverage," councilwoman Jessie Burley said. "So by granting them waivers because it's a more important building, it could also have the reverse effect where it's actually diminishing the value of building."
Shaner has a conservative view of the zoning overlay, seeing it as a way to allow builders to keep historical structures on their properties even if they aren't up to code.
Others, and town staff in particular, see the overlay as one of the only tools available to the town government for preserving a dwindling stock of historical buildings at a time of ramped up development up in Frisco.
Nonetheless, giving up parking requirements or easing density limits to keep the bulldozers away can be problematic.
"The danger of this situation is that the developers can bully the town saying, 'OK then, fine — I'm wrecking it,'" said planning commissioner Donna Skupien.
Even if that's not actually the case, the optics can be bad. When the town was considering a controversial land deal with Foote's Rest last year that included a historic overlay, some residents accused property owner Kelly Foote of threatening to tear down his historic properties if the council didn't play ball.
Foote has vehemently denied those claims, saying his family has always been committed to preserving their historic buildings, including his late grandmother's iconic home-turned-sweetshop.
Baseless as they may have been, the accusations injected even more vitriol to what was the most heated town debate all year. The land deal was approved, and Foote agreed to move the historic Staley-Rouse House to the street corner and preserve it, along with five other historic structures on his property.
The planning commission approved Foote's hotel, restaurant and bowling alley development last week, but the town council still needs to sign off on the historic overlay.
Foote said he appreciated all the work town staff has put into historic preservation. But like the town council, he thought the process could be improved, possibly by using financial incentives.
"I think there are some things the historic overlay could do to encourage preservation without code waivers, through things like tax incentives and the reduction of construction-side costs," said Foote, reached by phone Thursday.
Councilman Rick Ihnken floated that idea during the work session, arguing that some aspects of the code are too important to bargain away.
"I'd rather see financial incentives like tap fees and those sorts of things," he said. "I think the parking discussion for this should be over, as far as waiving those requirements."
The work session discussion lasted more than an hour-and-a-half, although it was short on concrete action items. Members did seem to universally agree that better defining what qualifies for historic zoning would be a good place to start — possibly by creating a master list of eligible properties.
Currently, anything that is over 50 years old, architecturally significant and reasonably well preserved is eligible. The code language is so vague, Shaner joked, that a developer might be able to declare Mayor Gary Wilkinson's home historic 10 years from now.
"I think the wording in this introduction in this section sets us up for massive abuse of it if we're not more careful on how we define it," she said.
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