Even after it was narrowed, and despite assurances and clarifications, the demolition review ordinance could only gain the support of three Omaha City Councilmembers and thus went down to defeat in a 4-3 vote July 12.
Intended to “hit the pause button” on proposed demolitions of historically or architecturally significant properties, the ordinance was first proposed by Councilmember Chris Jerram last December after sudden demolitions upset neighbors in the Dundee and Fairacres neighborhoods.
There was no opposition to the ordinance at a public hearing in May. It was only after the hearing that representatives of development, real estate and property owners organizations began a late but effective campaign against it.
Councilmember Aimee Melton, a vehement opponent of the plan, invited five speakers to air their grievances against the proposed ordinance. “My biggest problem with this is I don’t think we need it,” Melton said. “We have the Landmark Historical Society (sic); we already have enough processes in place. I think the government has already infringed on the rights of property owners to such an extent that if we add any more, we are going to lose development and developers in this community.”
John Chatelain, president of the Metropolitan Omaha Property Owners Association, said the ordinance “talks about this nine-member unelected commission that’s going to have control of my property.” This was after Assistant City Attorney Jennifer Taylor had assured the council that the Landmarks Heritage Preservation Commission is a recommending body only in these matters. Chatelain concluded by noting, “It affects everybody’s property because they will all be 75 years old eventually.”
Developer Tom McLeay, a member of the Omaha Municipal Land Bank, said the law would “potentially affect thousands and thousands of properties.” McLeay said the review ordinance would stall development and push developers to outlying communities. Proponents of the plan noted that the ordinance, in its amended form, would have affected fewer than 500 properties in Omaha that are both 75 years old and previously identified as potentially historic.
Doug Kagan, representing Nebraska Taxpayers for Freedom, said his group objects to the rule change in its entirety. “We believe that owners who actually pay the taxes on these properties have the sole right to decide the futures of their properties.”
Andy Alloway, president of Omaha Area Board of Realtors, said the ordinance takes away and erodes property rights. “The biggest thing that I would say is there are already zoning laws in place, there are building and use code restrictions, there are protections in place for this. We are all for the preservation of property, but it should be that property owner’s decision. It should not be left in the hands of an unelected body.”
Mayor Jean Stothert also weighed in via a letter read at the meeting. She stated that she can no longer support the proposal due to “a great deal of feedback in opposition.” She said the changes create more red tape for developers and constitute government overreach. She recommended that the council delay the vote and gather more public input.
At Jerram’s invitation, Kristine Gerber, executive director of Restoration Exchange Omaha, addressed the council. She noted that Omaha’s would be one of the least restrictive ordinances in the country. She also reassured councilmembers that the properties in question represent “a minute number” of properties. “These properties have been identified by experts as historically significant and architecturally significant,” she said, noting that it is REO’s wish to “make it hard to demolish these historically significant and architecturally significant” homes and buildings instead of these properties being torn down in as little as three days with no public comment. “At least let’s have time to have a conversation,” she concluded.
Councilmember Rich Pahls, while praising Jerram’s commitment to improving the city, said he needed more information to support the measure. Prior to his “no” vote, Councilmember Franklin Thompson said he was impressed with the call for a future conversation because “it is an important issue for our city.” He scolded the development community for not expressing its opposition earlier. “But I do believe that you won the argument today, so I will be voting on your behalf,” he said.
Council President Ben Gray stopped short of calling the amended ordinance “watered down.” Though his was one of the three affirmative votes, Gray said a reason he might vote against it is because “it doesn’t have enough in it, quite frankly.” Gray contacted city representatives from locations that have adopted demolition review ordinances.
Other communities have approved them to leave a legacy for young people, he said. “If we start tearing down all the properties, there is no legacy left for young people.”
Though Jerram indicated he would not reintroduce the bill, he left open the possibility that another councilmember could bring it back for discussion.