City briefed on proposed changes to historic preservation ordinance

Tacoma Mayor Bill Baarsma and members of the City Council were briefed yesterday on the draft of an ordinance designed to update and change the historic preservation sections of the Tacoma Municipal Code (TMC) in order to protect historic resources, improve the code’s ease of use for property owners and city staff, and better the efficiency and predictability of the design review process.

“The code has been updated sort of organically over the years, resulting in a large body of knowledge that could use clarification,” said Reuben McKnight, the city’s historic preservation officer. McKnight told the mayor and councilmembers that Tacoma’s historic preservation program dates back to 1973, and has changed slightly during efforts to renovate Old City Hall and Union Station.

Currently, the proposed changes would be made to TMC 1.42, which primarily regulates the activities of the Landmarks Preservation Commission and the process for designating historic properties to the Register of Historic Places, TMC 13.07, which primarily regulates Historic Districts, and TMC 1.23, which is associated with the Hearing Examiner.

The most significant revisions call for reducing the number of landmarks commission members from 15 to 11; expanding or creating new procedures for the designation and regulation of historic districts and landmarks, as well as the appeals process; creating a new section to address demolition; creating historic district maps that replace legal descriptions; and cross-referencing with areas of the TMC.

Efforts to update the city’s historic preservation codes date back to March 2004, when the City Council requested that the Landmarks Preservation Commission designate a subcommittee to review the current code and generate recommendations for updates. That subcommittee was created two months later and spent the rest of last year compiling recommendations that were presented to the Neighborhoods and Housing Committee in January. Since that time, McKnight and the Landmarks Preservation Commission have solicited feedback from Tacoma residents (a public meeting was held June 8), city councilmembers, and the city’s planning commission. A draft version of the revised ordinance was released by the city in May 2005.

During the city’s neighborhoods and housing committee meeting on Aug. 15, McKnight stressed the need for the changes.

“We want to make these updates because the basic structure is more than 30 years old,” he said. “The code is hard to use and procedures are missing.”

McKnight also told the committee that proposed changes were intended to improve the protection of Tacoma’s architectural heritage, while making the process more transparent and easier to use for residents and city staff.

During Tuesday’s study session, McKnight pointed to proposed changes to the Certificates of Approval section of TMC 13.07, which create a set of requirements for applications submitted to the commission for review, a guaranteed timeline for review, and a predictable process for applicants. McKnight also highlighted proposed changes to the Nomination and Designation Process for Individual Properties, also found in TMC 13.07. The proposed change calls for the replacement of a public hearing requirement with a two-stage nomination process whereby the commission can consider a preliminary request and, if the nomination meets the criteria, a second meeting with notice would be scheduled.

According to McKnight, this two-stage process requires the commission to decide on the nomination in a public setting. “It’s designed to make the process more efficient and open to the public,” reported McKnight. He also said the set of requirements proposed for the Certificates of Approval section creates a checklist whereby any completed application could be considered.

The city currently has more than 1,300 properties under the protection of the Tacoma Register of Historic Places, and four designated historic districts: Union Depot / Warehouse; Old City Hall; North Slope; and Stadium Seminary.

Councilmembers are expected to vote on the ordinance Oct. 25.

Councilmember Tom Stenger was pleased with the proposed changes. “I’m impressed by the work that’s been done,” he said. “This ends up being a third generation ordinance. This is a big step forward for Tacoma.”

For more information about this issue, including copies of the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s recommendation report, a draft version of the revised ordinance, and explanatory summary documents, visit