A commission that oversees building developments and land-use projects in around the state Capitol and Little Rock’s Governor’s Mansion neighborhood could be dissolved. The Arkansas legislature is considering special language to an appropriations bill that would end the Capitol Zoning District Commission and transfer its duties to the Department of Arkansas Heritage.
The legislation would give the director of the Department of Heritage authority in making regulatory decisions regarding the historical character of property in the neighborhoods. Republican State Senator Jeremy Hutchinson of Benton proposed the amendment to Senate Bill 46. On Wednesday, it passed out of the legislature’s Special Language subcommittee.
Hutchinson says the regulatory process would be “more easily duplicated in a more efficient way” if the commission’s permitting authority is transferred to the department.
“[The commission is made up of] appointed people with no requirement that they have any history or experience with historical redevelopment. Whereas the department of heritage, that’s what they do every day, every hour of every day,” said Sen. Hutchinson.
Boyd Maher, director of the CZDC, says the current nine member body has the expertise and familiarity with the neighborhoods needed to make informed decisions about what building and land developments are consistent with area’s history.
“We just want to see the job done and if we can create efficiencies in state government by merging with another department, great. It’s most important to us that the protective framework of these neighborhoods stays in place,” says Maher.
The General Assembly formed the Capitol Zoning District Commission in 1975 “to protect the unique historic and architectural character of these neighborhoods,” according to the commission’s website. It has an annual budget of just under $250,000 and oversees development on more than 1,400 Little Rock properties.
The commission is appointed by the governor, secretary of state and Little Rock city officials. According to Boyd, the CZDC also has three paid staff members: the director, the program coordinator and an administrative analyst.
The Department of Arkansas Heritage is currently headed by Stacy Hurst, who was appointed by Governor Asa Hutchinson.
“Ms. Hurst is a friend and colleague and I like her a lot but my reservation is that we’re replacing the expertise of nine members of a commission with one person,” Mayer says.
The CZDC staff review permit applications from property owners looking to develop in the neighborhoods. If staff do not approve an application, the commission currently maintains the authority to affirm or deny the permit. If the commission denies a permit, an applicant can appeal to Pulaski County Circuit Court. Under the new language proposed by Sen. Hutchinson, permits would have to be approved by department of heritage staff, then to the department director. Permit denials could still be appealed to the circuit court.
Maher says the commission’s three advisory committees also provide a layer of response and feedback from citizens who live in or who have expertise on the neighborhood. They are the Design Review Committee, the Mansion Area Advisory Committee and the Capitol Area Advisory Committee.
Senator Hutchinson says, under his amendment, the commission’s staff positions would likely be transferred to the department as well.
“Certainly the staff...working for the [CZDC] are qualified and would be able to apply and I would think they’d have a very good chance of being hired since they do it, ” says Hutchinson.
Hutchinson says the change would be “a far better fit” and provide “one stop-shopping” for Capitol area and Governor’s Mansion neighborhood property owners because they would be able to get tax credits and grants for historical redevelopment as well as instructions on how to comply with zoning requirements all through one state agency.
Hutchinson says the state would also save money on lease payments for the CZDC building, located at 410 Battery Street. He also expects that an administrative position on the commission’s staff wouldn’t be required if duties were transferred to the larger department.
On Wednesday, the Quapaw Quarter Association, a non-profit that advocates for historic preservation in the downtown neighborhood, sent out an email calling on its members to oppose Hutchinson’s amendment.
Hutchinson said his amendment would likely be voted on by the Joint Budget Committee on Thursday. If it advances, it will go to a full vote on the floor of the Senate.