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Holladay Journal

‘At this pace, we won’t have any left’ Future preservation in Holladay concerns city’s Historical Commission

Jun 04, 2024 10:41AM ● By Rebecca Olds

The Brinton Home, located at 4880 S. Highland Circle in Holladay, was torn down in February to make room for townhomes. (Courtesy Kim Duffy)

Historical preservation of city sites within Holladay has been a war for far longer than Kim Duffy expected.

“At this pace, we won’t have any left,” Duffy said. 

Duffy is the vice chair of Holladay’s Historical Commission. She said five homes originally belonging to Holladay City founders have been torn down in the last four years following significant efforts to save them. The Brinton home was torn down in February as the latest casualty. 

In response to proposed amendments that would alter the city’s preservation ordinance were brought up by the Holladay City Council in April, members of the Historical Commission used the opportunity to give their input. 

The current ordinance, and now its proposed amendments, has received scrutiny not only from the city’s historical commission but by the larger organization Preservation Utah, which called it a “dormant” ordinance that hasn’t done enough to save historic sites in the area. The controversy surrounding the ordinance has been years in the making. 

A controversial ordinance

Even before the proposed amendments, Holladay’s historical preservation ordinance had received scrutiny from Preservation Utah, which was the first statewide historic preservation organization in the western United States.

The statewide organization posted a picture of a local historic site with the caption, “Holladay currently has a preservation ordinance, but it went dormant many years ago. We hope that this listing will help motivate Holladay City to adopt a working preservation ordinance.”

David Amott, former president of Preservation Utah and previous Holladay resident, said the current ordinance and its amendments aren’t sufficient to protect homes and pale in comparison to other more active preservation ordinances in the state. 

Amott lived in Holladay and included his grandparent’s home on the national historic registry, but failed to add it to the city registry. He applied to put it on the city’s historic registry when invited by city staff and waited half a year. But, after several more attempts, he gave up.

What are the amendments to Holladay’s preservation ordinance?

The proposed amendments designate the city council as the “Land Use Authority” and allows them to designate or discharge properties as historic in the city without public notice. Additionally, the amendments outline new requirements for a property to be considered historic and the restrictions on remodeling historic buildings. 

Before being brought to the council, as is normal within the city process, the city’s Planning Commission reviewed the amendments. During that public meeting, Historical Commission members, including Duffy, expressed their concerns about having a more active role in working to preserve historic buildings and sites in the city. 

While the Planning Commission approved the proposed amendments, they also included a specific recommendation to have the Historical Commission play a more active advisory role on future decisions regarding historic sites in response to the Historical Commission’s pleas. 

The same point was brought to the City Council as they were presented to vote on the amendments with the recommendation from the Planning Commission. In response, the council considered an additional stipulation that would require notice to the commission about key decisions regarding historic sites, but has not included it officially into the amendments yet. 

The Historical Commission is concerned the council won’t move forward with the stipulation to include them and historical sites will continue to be torn down without anyone advocating for their preservation.

The council is still deliberating the proposed amendments and has not set a date to vote on it.

What is the role of the Historical Commission?

Ty Brewer, Holladay councilmember and liaison to the Historical Commission, said Holladay’s code specifically states that the commission’s role within the city is an advisory capacity, limited to mostly researching the city’s history, preserving photos and other media, and educating the public. 

Brewer said the roles’ boundaries were “healthy and good,” and that he supported the previous decision made by the council in 2017 that outlined the current historical commission’s role. 

The motivating force behind the amendments to the original ordinance, Brewer said, is to make sure it respects residents’ property rights while incentivizing preservation within the city. 

But, according to vice chair of the historical commission Kim Duffy, the commission was never “invited” to give advice or input on historical properties or given specific notice on the proposed amendment to the preservation ordinance. In short, she felt they weren’t even being used by the city as an advisory entity. 

The purported lack of notice goes beyond the ordinance amendments. Historical Commission Chair Sandy Meadows said commission members weren’t even notified when potential historical sites were in danger of demolition.

“We just want the opportunity to go to the owner and say, ‘What can we do to preserve this building?’” Meadows said.  

Duffy’s and other concerned residents’ comments during a city council meeting held on April 25, inspired further conversation in the council’s work meeting. 

A concern raised by officials is the Historical Commission is a group of volunteers, not elected officials, which shouldn’t be mandated to participate in official decisions such as rezoning or granting of construction permits.

“Clearly she feels like they were excluded from the process. I think we can fix that by including, but I don't necessarily want to do that by ordinance and mandated by ordinance,” said Councilmember Paul Fotheringham during the meeting in April. “This is a volunteer committee. How do you mandate participation of people in a volunteer organization?” 

Councilmember Emily Gray spoke of her interest in involving the commission more when it comes to historic sites because she herself is not a historian.

“It does sound like there's a skill set that would be great to take advantage of this process. And so I would be interested in learning where to get that to work more seamlessly as an advisory capacity,” Gray said. “I think I would want that advice.”

Even if the council were to mandate the inclusion of the Historical Commission in the process, the council raised concerns about future volunteers in the group being “robust” enough in knowledge of the city’s history to be helpful.

Amott said perhaps the council’s concerns about resident-staffed committees being “too active” or “too activist perhaps is a better word” is valid, but regardless the council is not using the knowledge of the historical commission in the way the city originally intended and the city’s history is suffering the consequences as new construction and growth threatens to tear down more historic sites.  

Is there room for historical preservation in a growing state?

Even among an industrious and quickly growing state, there is value in maintaining the “textured, interesting, real history” of Utah and its cities, Amott said.

“Why this matters for Holladay—why this matters for the rest of Utah—is because of this rich architectural legacy which continues to be denigrated by redevelopment,” he said. “Developers are very, very, very well taken care of here in Utah and occasionally, it would just be nice for preservation to be given a bone.”

While Councilmember Brewer noted that historic preservation is important within the city, he describes himself as a “advocate for property rights” and said the amendments to the ordinance respects the need for preservation while still ensuring people’s rights as property owners. 

“There’s a balance that has to be struck there,” Brewer said, referring to historical preservation and property rights. 

Amott agreed, but added that cities need “to stop fearing historic preservation.”

“There can exist historic preservation and property rights within the same ordinance…and we don't even have to get creative. Just look at other examples,” Amott said, noting that Provo City has an exemplary historical preservation ordinance.  

May was National Historic Preservation Month with the commission and the Holladay Arts Council hosting two events regarding Holladay’s historic buildings. λ