How to Attend an HLC Meeting: Step By Step for the Layperson

Anyone can attend, and speak, at meetings of the City of Austin’s Historic Landmark Commission. Here’s everything you need to know to do so:

BASICS
The Historic Landmark Commission (HLC) is an 11-member board appointed to four-year terms by City Council. Duties include reviewing historic zoning applications; reviewing certificates of appropriateness and tax exemption applications for city landmarks; and reviewing all demolition permits in local historic districts, National Register districts, and for all buildings over 50 years old. 6 votes constitute a simple majority, and 8 votes are a supermajority. The HLC usually meets on the fourth Monday of each month.

BEFORE THE MEETING
The HLC’s monthly meeting schedule, along with its agendas, minutes, and videos of previous meetings, are posted online on the City’s website. Every month the city posts agenda and backup materials no later than 3pm the Friday before each meeting. Check the agenda for cases of interest, and review the back-up materials and staff recommendations. You can also check Preservation Austin’s blog for lists of proposed demolitions up to a week before each meeting.

CONTACTING THE HLC
Contact the city’s Historic Preservation Office as soon as possible if you have important information about a case, or simply want to share your support or opposition. Address emails to the Historic Landmark Commission, and send them to Historic Preservation Office staff. Address snail mail to the Austin Historic Preservation Office, Planning and Development Review Department, P.O. Box 1088, Austin, Texas 78767. All comments received by the Preservation Office become part of the permanent record for the case.

NOTICES IN THE MAIL
Property owners and utility account holders within 500 feet of a property being reviewed by the HLC will receive notice in the mail roughly 7-10 prior to the case’s hearing. Recipients can return the notices to the city with comments. Add as much information to your response as possible, including the address for the property of concern (the notices are only stamped with a long case number that will not be immediately recognizable to HLC members). Write out what it is you are in support of or opposing. For example, “I oppose the demolition of 500 Elm Street because…” Simply checking the “oppose” or “support” boxes does not send a clear message to the HLC, as the proposed action can vary by case.

MEETING LOGISTICS
The meeting location will be stated at the top of the agenda published online by the Friday before the meeting. Most meetings are held in City Council chambers (301 W. 2nd Street), but occasionally meetings are held at an alternate location, like One Texas Center (505 Barton Springs Road). Confirm the location beforehand. Meetings start at 7pm.

At City Hall, you may park under the building for free by having City staff stamp the parking ticket. Enter the garage from Guadalupe Street and bring your ticket inside. You will be asked to walk through a metal detector and put your bags on a conveyor belt for x-ray security screening.

Proceed to council chambers. Get your parking ticket validated by the City of Austin staff member seated at the table at the front of the room, to the left of the dais.

ARRIVING AT THE MEETING
Upon entering the chamber, there will be copies of the agenda and a sign-in book. Take an agenda. ONLY sign the book if you wish to SPEAK on a particular case. Unfortunately, there is no mechanism to register your support or opposition for a case at the meeting itself without signing up to speak. (If you are with a group of people, one of whom will speak, you may consider having your speaker request that all the supporters in the audience stand as a show of support). There is a separate sign-up page for each case. Be sure to sign up correctly to indicate your support or opposition for the case (e.g. If the case proposes demolition of a building and you are against the demolition, sign up as “opposed”). TIP: Valid your parking ticket when you arrive so that you don’t forget!

THE MEETING
Before the first case is heard, there will be an opportunity for Citizen Communication. This agenda item is for members of the public to address the HLC with any general or broader policy concerns that are NOT regarding a case that is already on the agenda.

Review the staff recommendation for your cases of interest. Unless the item appears in section 3.A, the item could be placed on the “consent agenda,” meaning that the HLC will vote to act in accordance with staff’s recommendation without opening a public hearing on the case. This means that the case will be approved with no discussion, unless the owner, a member of the public, or an HLC member requests that the case be discussed. To pull a case for discussion, sign up to speak in the book upon entry, or raise your hand and when the Preservation Officer reads through the agenda.

SPEAKING ON A CASE
Speaking on a case is an important way to let the HLC know your feelings. The HLC considers community value and a range of historical associations – you don’t need to be a professional architectural historian to provide meaningful input! Speakers in favor of the proposed action have the opportunity to speak first. Those opposed speak next, and then those in favor have an opportunity for a rebuttal. The first speaker has 5 minutes, and subsequent speakers each have 3 minutes.  “Donating time” to speakers is not allowed, so plan appropriately. Speakers must come down to address the HLC from one of the two podiums – you may not do so from your seat. You may present a PowerPoint, video, or images. Bring a jump drive to the computer station at the front as soon as you arrive to the meeting and the A/V technician will assist you.

Remember to state your name for the record at the beginning of your remarks. Try to keep your comments related to the preservation/history aspects of the case. A buzzer will sound after time has expired and you will be asked to wrap up your thoughts. TIP: do not leave the podium immediately. The Chair will always ask the commissioners if they have any questions for you, and you don’t want to have to return to the podium from halfway back to your seat.  Once all speakers have been called the HLC will move to close the public hearing, which means that no more testimony from the audience will be heard and the commissioners will discuss and vote on the case.

UNDERSTANDING THE VOTE
HLC members will make a motion, conduct a discussion, and then vote. During discussion, the HLC may ask the staff questions regarding the case. The chair should state whether each motion passes or fails. An action requires at least 6 “yes” votes, which is a majority of the 11 commissioners. If the HLC is divided, with 5 voting “yes” and 4 voting “no,” for example, the motion fails.

If 75 days have passed since the filing of the demolition permit, the permit will be released even if the commission cannot come to agreement on a motion (although the HLC may take up to 180 days to release a permit in a National Register Historic District).

The only way to stop a demolition is for the HLC to initiate historic zoning. When arguing against a demolition, then, you should also argue for historic zoning based on the city’s criteria for historic designation. For cases initiating historic zoning over owner opposition, there must be 8 “yes” votes, which is a supermajority of the 11 members.

“Initiating” historic zoning is also only the first step – this means that the case will return to the HLC at a subsequent meeting for a vote on whether historic zoning will be “Recommended” to Council. Cases that are recommended for historic zoning proceed to the Planning and Zoning Commission for a recommendation, and then to City Council for final decision. It is possible that properties that are recommended for historic zoning by the HLC will not receive the necessary votes from City Council to finalize the process.

HLC meetings are videotaped and broadcast live on TV. The video is also archived on the City’s website and posted online soon after each meeting.