Plan to merge Kingston’s preservation panels sent back for more work

The Kingston Common Council voted to hold off on a public hearing for a proposal to merge two commissions charged with maintaining the city’s historic character. The 7-2 vote came after members of the Historic Landmarks Preservation and Heritage Area commissions, as well as other preservationists, complained that the legislation was not ready for public review and warmed that moving ahead too quickly could undermine their efforts.

The proposal to merge the two commissions is an outgrowth of the city’s recently completed comprehensive plan, which calls for revisions to the city’s zoning code. In March, Assistant Corporation Counsel Daniel Gartenstein sent Mayor Steve Noble proposed legislation and recommended that it be moved to the council’s Laws and Rules committee for action. Tuesday’s vote was held to determine if the legislation should be distributed to involved agencies — including both commissions and the state Historic Preservation Office — for review and put up for a public hearing.

The Historic Landmarks Preservation Commission is charged with maintaining an inventory of historic properties, approving changes to existing buildings or the designs of new ones in historic districts and recommending sites for landmark status. The Historic Area Commission serves as a conduit for grant funding within several designated historic areas around the city. The commission also advises on issues with the historic areas and ensures compliance with elements of the city’s 1990s-era waterfront revitalization plan. Noble’s plan would combine the commissions and place them under the purview of the city’s Planning Department. Supporters say the change would streamline the review process and ensure consistency. 

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But members of the city’s preservation community said that the effort to “streamline” the city code appears rushed. They said that similar legislation is usually subjected to public hearing as a finished product after review and input from experts. In this case, neither commission nor the state Historic Preservation Office were consulted. In a strongly worded May 22 letter to the city, Deputy State Historic Preservation Officer R. Daniel Mackay said that he had reviewed a draft of the proposed changes and found that they could undermine preservation efforts. Mackay said wrote that the legislation produced by city attorneys appeared to “water down” qualifications for service of the commission and placed preservation under a larger economic development agenda.

Mackay also took exception to an email from the Kingston Corporation Counsel’s Office which suggested that the new law did not need to be reviewed by state preservation officials and that the city would not seek their input. Mackay warned that the draft legislation, if adopted could lead to the city’s removal from a “Certified Local Government” program that offered access to grant funding and state assistance on preservation issues.

“Our office is concerned that not only has the proposed legislation weakened the powers of the [Historic Landmarks Preservation Commission], but the changes would place the city out of compliance with the regulations of the [Certified Local Government] program and therefore may lead to decertification,” Mackay wrote.

What’s going on? Could it be …

At Tuesday’s council meeting, members of both commissions and others objected to what they said was a rushed effort to pass incomplete legislation. Several pointed to statements by Gartenstein who said the law needed to be passed in time for the changes to be reflected in next year’s budget. Several people who attended the Laws and Rules meeting said Gartenstein also alluded to issues he did not want to discuss in a public forum in recommending swift passage of the law. That could be a reference to ongoing or expected litigation which is shielded from public discussion under state Open Meetings Law. Owen Harvey, who has brought a lawsuit challenging the city’s approval of the Irish Cultural Center of the Hudson Valley adjacent to his Abeel Street home, wondered if the Gartenstein was referring to his legal action.

“To use the council to change the law to impact the outcome of pending litigation is abuse of power,” said Harvey.

Local activist Rebecca Martin said she was perplexed by the urgency of the push to pass the new law, especially after the Laws and Rules Committee was told that the budget issue was not pressing.

“There has been a real push by the Common Council to streamline the commissions first and figure out the rest later,” Martin told the council. “A citizen can come to the conclusion that citizens were mislead about the timeline.”

When the resolution to set a public hearing came up on the council floor, Alderwoman Andrea Shaut (D-Ward 9) introduced a motion to refer the issue back to the Laws and Rules Committee. Several Council members said that they were swayed by preservationists’ concerns about the speed of the process and lingering questions about provisions in the new law.

The two dissenters, Council Majority Leader Rennie Scott-Childress (D-Ward 3) and Doug Koop (D-Ward 2) said they were equally committed to passing solid legislation that would maintain the city’s commitment to preservation, but that they believed a public hearing would be the best way to accomplish the goal. Scott-Childress noted that the legislation could still be returned to the committee for revision after the hearing.

“How do we go about getting the best information and include the community in a substantive way?” said Scott-Childress. Do we spend a month with this back in committee or do we go to a public forum?”

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