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LIGHTNING EDITORIAL: County should adopt historic tax credit

By neglecting the work of its own volunteer advisory board, the Henderson County Board of Commissioners is poorly serving the county's rich history and failing to follow through on a mission that it set up.

The Historic Resources Commission, created by the Board of Commissioners in 2008, has spent six years trying to fulfill the goal of "safeguard[ing] the heritage of the County ... by preserving districts and landmarks (that) embody important elements of its culture, history, architectural history, or prehistory," to quote the official description of the historic board's job.
Since it formed the historic board, the elected county commissioners have done little to support or show an interest in its work.
Last month, the Historic Resources Commission presented a draft Historic Preservation Ordinance to the county Planning Board, only to be shot down again, or at least treated like an unwelcome salesman.
Planning Board members raised objections based on the number of old homes on the tax roll, the loss of tax money, the higher cost of fire protection for old homes and other irrelevant or misunderstood factors.
The county planning staff itself apparently does not understand how a historic landmark ordinance works across North Carolina or even Henderson County. With the addition of the Flat Rock Historic Landmarks Commission last year, the county has two local boards empowered to recommend tax credits for historic properties. Hendersonville has the other.
A report by the planning department said that Hendersonville has 54 "local designated structures within their Historic District Program," which is true but misleading. Exactly three properties in Hendersonville have official historic tax credit designation (two Erle Stillwell-designed homes on Blythe Street and the Brookland home in Brookland Heights). The Village of Flat Rock has designated two.
That makes five homes in two of the most historic areas of the entire county, resulting in an annual property tax loss to the two municipalities (and the county) of several hundred dollars.
Even more misleading was a sticker shock number showing that the county had 543 structures at least 100 years old, 2,572 at least 75 years old and 9,619 at least 50 years old. Only a tiny fraction would meet the standard for historic designation. Many structures more than 100 years old are falling down or about to, and one in good shape is not necessarily historic — that is (as state law directs) having "special significance in terms of its historical, prehistorical, architectural or cultural importance."
Failing to fall down or burn down does not by itself merit historic designation.
The process of getting a home or structure qualified for a historic tax credit is expensive and time-consuming. Many homeowners don't want the tax credit because it limits changes they can make to their property.
Local preservation boards can and do make their own set of rules. In fact, the Historic Resources Commission proposes that a home or building to achieve the historic landmark designation must be accessible to the public. We think that's a mistake, presenting the obligation not just to care for a historic property but become a docent for it, too. Neither Flat Rock nor Hendersonville requires historic properties to afford public access. No doubt that requirement alone would greatly reduce the number of applicants for the tax credit in the county. In fact there are many reasons why homeowners won't bother to apply for the historic tax deferment. Taken together, what that means is that few will.
The Historic Preservation Ordinance does not set in motion a tax-deferment frenzy that will bankrupt the county. The Board of Commissioners should get engaged in what its advisory board is doing on behalf of the people and help the historic board move ahead with this incentive to preserve history.