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Historic district commission to clarify design guidelines

by Tia Lyons | May 13, 2022 at 12:00 a.m.

After six years, the El Dorado Historic District Commission has once again formed a subcommittee to review and update its design guidelines, which help to preserve the historical and architectural integrity of the city's commercial historic district and to better guide development within the district.

The group last updated the guidelines during a two-year process that began in 2014 and ended in 2016 when the El Dorado City Council revised an ordinance that regulates the commercial historic district.

The ordinance reflected some of the revisions, which included a redrawing of the map of the district.

The commercial historic district encompasses several downtown city blocks that are roughly bordered by Cleveland, Oak, Jackson and Locust streets.

The new map updated legal descriptions and boundary lines and included changes -- such as the demolition of some buildings -- that had occurred since the map was originally drawn in 2004.

Another recommendation the historic district subcommittee made at the time was to clarify and clean up some of the language in the design guidelines to address issues that had cropped up before the EHDC over a decade.

"We need to identify weaknesses in specific guidelines that have, as we have seen, been exposed over the past six years," Commissioner Linda Rathbun said during a regular EHDC meeting Thursday.

Rathbun, who served on the EHDC subcommittee to update the design guidelines in 2014 - 2016, suggested five specific areas on which the new subcommittee should focus: the city's sign ordinance, new construction/infill construction, demolition by neglect, street scape/crosswalk art and wall murals.

"Another thing we probably need to clear up is paint and what colors are acceptable. People ask me all the time about what paint is acceptable and we need to give them some guidance," Rathbun said. "I think we need to avoid saying 'what's right' and give them some guidelines."

Commissioner Steve Biernacki asked if there is a particular time period for which paint colors and other design guidelines within the commercial historic district are tailored.

"It's called 'the period of significance,'" said Elizabeth Eggleston, executive director of the EHDC.

Rathbun added that the period of significance for the district is the 1920s - 1950s.

She also said she thought the local design guidelines were "pretty thin" and she cited some resources from other communities whose design guidelines are more in depth and specific.

Referring to the effort to update the guidelines in 2014 - 2016, Rathbun said, "The objective was to clarify and elaborate more and really to clean up and clarify the language."

Another resource, Eggleston said, is the National Alliance of Preservation Commissions, which provides information about design guidelines in other states, a host of issues historic districts across the country have faced and how they addressed those issues.

Rathbun asked if the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program could provide any guidance on the project and Eggleston said the state should be able to assist.

Eggleston also noted that Jim vonTungeln, a retired urban planner who serves as staff city planner for the Arkansas Municipal League, drafted the city's original design guidelines, could be another potential resource.

She told commissioners that the group must keep meticulous records of such activities as COA requests in order to write staff reports that are submitted to the state.

"We have to document why we do things and make sure that (a proposed project) is in accordance with the design guidelines and the U.S. Secretary of Interior's (Standards for the Treatment of Historical Properties)", Eggleston said.

COA applicants may appeal a decision by the EHDC by first requesting that the commission address or reconsider a prior decision, said Eggleston.

Within 30 days, if the applicant is still aggrieved, an appeal may be filed in Union County Circuit Court.

"That's why we have to document things so carefully," she explained, adding that no one has formally appealed an EHDC decision in the group's nearly 20-year history.

Rathbun said the documentation and design guidelines not only provide guidance and clarity for property owners, but also an understanding of factors the EHDC must consider when reviewing and voting on COAs.

"It's not arbitrary," Rathbun said.

She suggested that the subcommittee set a goal of December 2023 to make its recommendations to update the design guidelines.

Print Headline: Historic district commission to clarify design guidelines

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