Neighborhood committee reviews proposed changes to historic preservation codes

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 could be headed to the city council this fall, according to a discussion at yesterday’s Neighborhoods and Housing Committee meeting.

“We want to make these updates because the basic structure is more than 30 years old,” said Reuben McKnight, the city’s historic preservation officer. “The code is hard to use and procedures are missing.”

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, and TMC 13.07, which primarily regulates Historic Districts.

In March of 2004, 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. It 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 spent much of this year soliciting feedback from Tacoma residents — a public meeting was held June 8 — city councilmembers, and the city’s planning commission.

The recommended revisions include structural updates and removal of redundant sections, revisions to the appointments procedures and operations of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, detailed procedures for application review, nomination and designation of properties to the historic register, clarification of authority and responsibilities, and new demolition standards.

According to McKnight, these changes are 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.

Councilmember Tom Stenger, who serves on the Neighborhoods and Housing Committee, expressed a great deal of interest in how these changes would improve the transparency of Landmarks Preservation Commission’s activities — particularly regarding the process for approving and denying requests for historic designation. “Is there any language that says the process must be fair and equitable?” asked Stenger. “If anyone challenged the process, we want something that says the process is fair and stands up in court, so outsiders and courts can say we are doing this right.”

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.

“This two-stage process requires the commission to make the call on the nomination in a public setting,” said 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.

The city council is scheduled to review and discuss the draft ordinance at a study session on Sept. 27, and take action on the final version of the ordinance in November.

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