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The Athens-Clarke Commission is considering a new—for Athens—type of zoning called a conservation district as an alternative to a controversial historic district in the Buena Vista Heights neighborhood.

Often referred to as “historic district light,” conservation districts involve tight restrictions on height, size and setbacks. Some officials say they may be a way to protect in-town neighborhoods from development that towers over existing houses without creating new historic districts, which often meet with fierce opposition.

“So many people have contacted me,” said Commissioner Jared Bailey, who represents the Prince Avenue corridor. “Their main concern in Buena Vista is scale.”

Some neighborhood residents are pushing for a historic district because they’re opposed to what they call “McMansions”—mostly 3,000 square-foot, two-story houses—being built in their working-class neighborhood of modest one-story homes. Developed as a streetcar suburb for mill employees in the late-19th century, Buena Vista is the poorer cousin of Boulevard, and historic district supporters say it’s worth preserving as well. The Boulevard Neighborhood Association has put its weight behind the historic district.

Opponents of a historic district—including some neighborhood residents and landlords, real estate agents and homebuilders—say it would stifle creative redevelopment, but they don’t know enough about conservation districts yet to say whether they’d support one.

Commissioner Alice Kinman said she wants to preserve in-town neighborhoods’ stock of smaller, affordable homes, but she’s happy to see some existing houses go. She said she is more concerned with protecting the character of Buena Vista than the individual structures.

Conservation districts are “generally the tool of choice in that situation,” Planning Director Brad Griffin told her at a work session last week.

At the work session, Griffin and historic preservation planner Amber Eskew explained how neighborhoods’ existing zoning, historic districts and conservation districts offer varying levels of protection.

Buena Vista and many other intown neighborhoods’ RS-8 zoning (single-family homes on quarter-acre lots) allows new houses with a footprint that covers up to 45 percent of the lot anywhere at least 10 feet from the side and back property lines or 15 feet from the front. Homes are limited to 30-feet high at the roof’s midpoint. So, a two-story house on an 8,000 square-foot lot could be several times larger than the 100-year-old cottages in Buena Vista. But larger houses can blend in if they’re low to the ground and set further back from the street.

On top of zoning requirements, new construction in historic districts like nearby Boulevard and Cobbham must meet design guidelines. Athens-Clarke County has three sets of guidelines: one for downtown, one for South Milledge Avenue and one for residential historic districts. New construction and renovations require certificates of appropriateness. Staff can approve minor projects, and major ones go to an appointed board, the Historic Preservation Commission, which negotiates with developers and approves 94 percent of requests.

But the underlying zoning is still in effect. “An historic designation doesn’t trump the zoning in any way,” Eskew said.

Whereas historic districts offer flexibility, conservation districts set concrete standards based on scale, not appearance. New houses must be a certain size, a certain height and a certain distance from the street. The strictness varies by city; in Savannah, even paint color is regulated. Planners check off a list, and there’s no board to appeal to.

Conservation districts are similar to the overlay districts Athens-Clarke County created near Athens-Ben Epps Airport and along Milledge Avenue and Gaines School Road. They recognize that zoning laws don’t always fit every neighborhood. For example, in Cedar Creek, a 1960s subdivision on the Eastside, houses are set back much farther than the law requires.

“If somebody were to build right up to that [minimum] setback, we’d get a lot of calls,” Griffin said.

Cities like Atlanta and Raleigh, NC have used conservation districts with success, but the process is labor-intensive, and the Athens-Clarke Planning Department has been cut back in recent years. Raleigh devotes 12 planners to handling applications in conservation districts, almost as many as work in the entire department in Athens.

“It’s a good tool,” Griffin said. “It’s a powerful tool, but it’s one that requires resources that we don’t have right now.”

Not everyone at the work session was a fan of conservation districts. Mayor Nancy Denson said she doesn’t like the idea of reducing the size of houses people can build. “I find that very troubling,” she said. “To me, it’s almost like a taking of people’s property.”

In addition, conservation districts offer protection from 4,000 square-foot new homes, but none for historic buildings, Griffin said—something that perturbed Commissioner Kathy Hoard, a longtime advocate for historic preservation. “The tour buses don’t go by” in conservation districts, she said, tongue-in-cheek.

After tabling the Buena Vista historic district in October, the commission declared a four-month moratorium on construction and additions in the neighborhood to buy more time for a decision. “It’s a tough choice,” Griffin said.