A legal fight is on and ramping up over El Paso County’s effort to establish a Downtown National Register Historic District that would take in 143 acres and 160 properties in the Downtown area.
Last Saturday, Jan. 16, the Texas Historical Commission’s Board of Review unanimously recommended approval of the historic district after hearing proponents describe the importance of such a district and opponents who said it could prevent property owners from doing what they want with their properties.
“I own seven properties in Downtown, four in the Duranguito area,” developer Miguel Fernandez said. “I am the single largest investor. I’ve been there over 17 years.
“I can tell you that putting the (historic) overlay will be a key detriment to the area and will make it more difficult for people.”
Members of the El Paso Historic Landmark Commission insist that’s not true and that a National Register historic district designation would let owners access federal tax credits to recover up to 45% of the cost of a restoration project but wouldn’t keep them from altering or even demolishing properties in a national historic district.
“Hearing that kind of thing is a major bother to me because that is not what this national historic district is intended to do,” Historic Landmark Commission Chairman D.J. Sevigny told El Paso Inc. Friday. “It is not intended to monitor what property owners do.
“It is intended to track and celebrate the local history of El Paso and to provide state and federal tax credits to owners who want to restore their property.”
Sevigny conceded that there is an ordinance on the city books that says alterations of properties in a national historic district in El Paso must be approved by the city’s Historic Landmark Commission.
The commission, he said, has been trying for years to have that language removed.
In the meantime, he said, “We do not enforce it, and we never have.”
Nonetheless, the Texas Historical Commission has received opposition letters from more than 100 property owners claiming that the establishment of the historic district and having to have property changes approved by the city’s Historic Landmark Commission would interfere with their property rights.
Before last week’s vote, the Board of Review was advised that a lawsuit had just been filed by nine corporations owned by some of El Paso’s best-known developers against the Texas Historical Commission to block El Paso County’s nomination of a national historic district in Downtown.
The nine corporations are owned by, among others, Woody Hunt, Paul Foster, Miguel Fernandez, Patricia Rogers, Steven Santamaria and Adam Frank.
All are represented by Kemp Smith attorney Deborah Trejo.
The suit cites the provision Sevigny discussed and asserted that property owners in the proposed historic district had not been informed of the county’s proposed historic plans – a charge that members of the city’s Historic Landmark Commission and county Commissioners Court deny.
However, late Friday, Kemp Smith attorney Mark Osborn announced that the lawsuit had been dropped by the plaintiffs, and said the process could not move forward because property owners had not been informed of the county’s plans to establish the district, and because more than half of the property owners have now objected to the district.
El Paso County Commissioner David Stout vehemently denies that property owners were not informed of the county’s plans and insists that HHM & Associates, the professional consultant the county hired to prepare the application, contacted every property owner and informed them about what was being proposed – as the law requires.
Another reason – if not the major reason – for the opposition is the inclusion of the five-acre Duranguito neighborhood in the proposed district. That’s where the city of El Paso plans to build the multipurpose cultural and performing arts center approved by voters in 2012.
The multipurpose center, or the arena as it’s often called, is regarded by major Downtown property owners and businesses as a much-needed project to enliven Downtown and attract our-of-town visitors to major events.
But similar centers are costing over $400 million in other cities, and El Paso’s new mayor, Oscar Leeser, has said he would prefer to see a performing arts center built in the Civic Center, also known as the Judson F. Williams Convention Center, a block north of Duranguito.
The El Paso County Commissioners Court will discuss the lawsuit at its meeting this Monday, and the Texas attorney general’s office has already appointed legal counsel to represent the Texas Historical Commission in the case brought by El Paso developers.
Email El Paso Inc. reporter David Crowder at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (915) 630-6622.