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Heritage preservation ordinance still in the works

A number of sticking points have delayed the Rochester City Council's consideration of a proposed city ordinance meant to protect historic buildings and sites.

Members of the city's Heritage Preservation Committee and the Rochester Area Chamber of Commerce continue to negotiate the language of the ordinance but remain at odds on some points. The main issue: The chamber wants heritage preservation to remain voluntary for property owners while the Heritage Preservation Committee, which proposed the ordinance, does not.

"That's something the state has told us wouldn't be acceptable," said committee member Tim Schmitt, referring to the State Historic Preservation Office, a division of the Minnesota Historical Society. 

However, requiring owners to seek city permission before making a change to their properties is punitive and could stifle healthy growth of the city, said chamber President John Wade. He said the chamber would prefer to have "an incentive-based system to encourage businesses, where possible, to enhance and update their facilities."

The city council will discuss the proposed ordinance again on Oct. 22 during a Committee of the Whole meeting. It was last discussed in mid-July. A public hearing scheduled for Aug. 20 was postponed after the Heritage Preservation Committee asked for more time to negotiate with the chamber.


Proponents say Rochester has lost too many historic buildings because it has no official process for reviewing demolition and building permits based on the historic value of structures.

Drafted by the committee, the ordinance would require the owners of designated heritage preservation sites to obtain permits from the city before they could make significant modifications to the exteriors of their properties — meaning major changes to a building's exterior structure, facade, roof line or architectural style. 

Commission authority

From the city's point of view, critical questions remain about the proposed Heritage Preservation Commission's authority and the process by which property owners could obtain building permits.

"Is it a body that makes a final decision or is it a body that makes a recommendation?" said City Attorney Terry Adkins. "If it's a body that makes a recommendation, to whom does that recommendation go?"

As the ordinance is drafted today, the commission would make a recommendation to the Building Safety Department about whether owners of designated sites should receive a building permit to make major renovations. However, the building safety director, following state building code, doesn't have the authority to consider a recommendation from a heritage preservation body, Adkins said.

Another option is a "site alteration permit" process for designated properties. If the council decides to do that, it would have to decide whether the city council or the preservation commission would issue the permit.

"And that gets back to whether the commission is a recommending body or a decision-making body," Adkins said. In the latter case, he said, there would be an appeal process to the city council.


Adkins and other staff members suggested language changes in the ordinance, which the Heritage Preservation Committee is considering, Schmitt said.

"The committee does want to make sure, from a process standpoint, that we do fit into the proper spot, so we'd kind of have a low footprint in terms of issuing permits. We're still looking at being a recommendation body," he said.

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