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Preservation bills wending way through legislature

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It’s the political equivalent of calling an audible in football – switching things up on the fly in an attempt to get a better result – and it may provide historic-preservation advocates more of what they are hoping to get from the General Assembly.

After a subcommittee approved a measure being sought to give preservation advocates an additional voice in decisions made at the local level, but simultaneously stripped out some key provisions of the bill, its sponsor made a request.

Would the House Committee on Counties, Cities and Towns, where the measure was being considered, agree to move the bill to the Committee on Courts of Justice, Del. Patrick Hope asked.

Hope (D-Arlington) is the patron of the measure. He told the Sun Gazette that, given the subject matter, “I think the Courts committee is best positioned” to deal with it.

A subcommittee of the Counties, Cities and Towns committee agreed; last week, subcommittee members requested that the full committee refer the bill to the Courts committee. Action on the request is pending.

Hope’s bill proposes several changes to the state’s historic-preservation laws, most notably prohibiting a local government from permitting the razing of a proposed historic property until 30 days after a final decision on the matter has been made.

The bill – HB 1210 – as filed also would permit a wider array of entities to appeal a governing body’s decision on historic status to the Circuit Court in that locality, including any local resident who spoke during public hearings on the matter.

The subcommittee of the Counties, Cities and Towns committee voted to strip that part of the proposal, although it could be reconsidered if the bill moves to the Courts of Justice committee.

At the Feb. 4 subcommittee hearing, Del. Philip Scott (R-Fredericksburg) suggested the proposal to allow others to take the matter to court would be opening a can of worms.

“You’re allowing parties that have no direct relationship to the property to object?” he asked.

Hope said he believed state law already allows just about anyone to lodge a court challenge to action on preservation (although he acknowledged some judges disagree). He said the verbiage was designed to put guardrails on the process by spelling out exactly who could launch legal action.
“We should put some clarification on this; it hasn’t been clear,” Hope said. “I don’t think it should be just anyone.”

But with Republicans expressing concern and having the power to kill the measure entirely, Del. Danica Roem (D-Prince William) moved to strip that provision after Hope agreed to accept the political equivalent of half a loaf.

A companion bill, patroned by state Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax), is following the same trajectory: First considered in the Senate Committee on Local Government, it has been re-referred to the Committee on Judiciary.
Petersen’s bill is SB 206, and as of now still contains the provision that was stricken from Hope’s incarnation.

Each house has until Feb. 15 to wrap up work on its own bills, meaning either the Hope or Petersen measures, or both, must win support in committee and on the floor in order to move to the other half of the legislature.

The measures come largely in reaction to the demolition of a number of historic structures in Arlington over the past year, which preservation advocates tried, but failed, to stop.

The final disposition of the bills remains an open question; Virginia lawmakers traditionally have taken private-property rights very seriously, limiting the powers of others (whether individuals or local governments) to interfere.

“This is always going to be a property-rights state,” Hope said.

That was a pronouncement Scott hoped proved true.

“I’m a property-rights person,” the Republican said.

The sticking point to enactment could be in the Republican-controlled House of Delegates. Even though the Counties, Cities and Towns subcommittee considering the bill pulled out some of the verbiage preservationists wanted, two Republicans on the eight-member panel still voted against the watered-down version.

And even if the Hope or Petersen bills make it to Gov. Youngkin’s desk, he could still amend them or veto them if he so chooses.

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