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Paso's proposed rules for historic buildings softened

The empty ivory-colored storefront at 1229 Park St. in Paso Robles has been a bakery, a hair salon and a women’s clothing store in its almost eight-decade life span.

The structure is just one of the town’s historic buildings.

Built in 1923, the Spanish-colonial revival structure — its inset display windows facing the street — is the pride of owners Dennis Loucks and his wife. The couple remodeled the building in 2005, revealing some of its historic details.

Now the city wants more. And the couple is concerned about the city’s proposed regulations.

If a new ordinance designed to preserve Paso Robles’ historic resources gains City Council approval next month, the Loucks and other owners of historic buildings will be encouraged by the city to maintain the historic appearance of their property.

Property tax incentives would be the main tool to entice such maintenance. But any incentives would come with additional rules and requirements that some say would cancel out any benefits.

The proposed ordinance will also make it easier to maneuver through state environmental laws for owners of historic buildings who wish to alter their properties.

Controversial enforcement rules in the new ordinance, eventually axed, were among the hot-button issues at Tuesday night’s City Council meeting. The council delayed approving the ordinance. City staff was directed to make changes they will present in February.

One of the main objections to the proposal was over the idea of the city placing liens on properties. The liens would penalize owners who applied for registered landmark status but then failed to maintain their building’s historic character.But after widespread criticism, the council asked staff to remove the penalty, saying it was too harsh.

“The way it read, it was like, ‘Holy Smokes.’ You don’t want the city getting into your personal business that way,” Loucks said.

Despite some objections about enforcement and fees, the ordinance was met with applause. Property owners and council members wanted the handful of tweaks to ensure the rules are fair.

The council also approved an updated inventory of historic properties, which will act as a guide when any major remodels or demolitions are proposed. Building owners on the list are allowed to make minor changes, such as painting. Interiors are not part of the proposal.

Owners on the inventory can apply for historic status on state and national registries. They can also apply for landmark status for property tax reductions under the Mills Act, a state law meant to preserve historic buildings.

The city can still fall back on existing code enforcement laws reserved for all dilapidated buildings declared a nuisance or dangerous. Permit fees without specific price tags for alterations to a building’s exterior were also a point of contention. City staff proposed that the city wait to name fee amounts until after the council adopted the ordinance.

“I’m not going to write a blank check,” Mayor Duane Picanco said of the idea.

Community Development Director Ron Whisenand said the fees would cover staff time preparing permit applications. Those fees exist now, he said, and range from $600 to $1,200 for significant alterations.

Whatever the amount, many still don’t agree owners should pay. “I would like to see the fees be very low,” said Grace Pucci, owner of a 19th century white Victorian at 1415 Vine St. “When you have an older home, it’s many times much more expensive to maintain than a standard home because you have to match your sidings and have your moldings fit the era.”

Loucks echoed her sentiment, saying property owners help the city maintain its charm, so the city should front the permit costs.

Paso Robles’ proposal was born from the 2007 county civil grand jury report, which said cities should adopt preservation programs. The report was a result of the controversy sparked by the denial of a remodeling permit requested by Smart & Final.

The company wanted to knock down part of Paso Robles’ historic Farmers Alliance building in 2006. The faded pink building with its iconic tower wasn’t on state or national historic registries at the time.

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