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HPC wants stronger role in preservation

The Bemidji Heritage Preservation Commission is looking to have more of an impact on the city it serves.

The HPC has asked the City Council to allow it to take steps toward becoming a Certified Local Government, which would strengthen the HPC's role in identifying, evaluating and protecting local historical resources.

As explained by HPC member Cindy Serratore, the commission could begin to provide guidelines for the public.

If, for instance, a homeowner of an older property was considering tearing off the front porch to spice up the appearance of the residence, he might refer to the guidelines and see that preservation of such porches is preferred -and he then might instead consider other options, she said.

Likewise, a business owner interested in improving her storefront might first consider ripping out the windows and putting in new ones until she notices that her neighbors are instead preserving such storefronts, Serratore explained.

"Right now, we're not providing a nice framework," she said.

Becoming a CLG would empower the HPC to develop a local list of historic places, similar to state and national registries.

Paul Richards, an HPC member, made a presentation to the City Council during its work session Monday. It was the first of what will likely be several discussions on the request, as the council directed City Attorney Al Felix to consider the proposed ordinance that would allow the HPC to become a CLG.

The council was generally supportive of the idea of historical preservation - especially concerning public properties - but did voice some concerns with when, or if, homeowners were required to consent to having their properties listed as historic properties.

The homeowner, according to the proposed ordinance, does not need to consent to having a property classified as historic, said Mayor Richard Lehmann.

Councilors Nancy Erickson and Roger Hellquist had similar questions, asking what would happen if the homeowner did not want to be included on a list of historic places.

"I'm not worried about public buildings ... but the average homeowner," Hellquist said.

Richards explained that the ordinance, based off a model ordinance through the Minnesota State Historical Preservation Office, outlines a public process that would include a survey of the property with the owner's cooperation, a plan on how to preserve the property, and a public hearing on classifying the land as a historic property.

"It wouldn't be that the Historic Preservation Commission could just designate a property," Serratore added.

Councilor Onen Markeson, who serves on the HPC as a council representative, said most homeowners want their properties to be classified as historic.

"It's something that is generally perceived as a very desirable thing," he said.

Al Brew, the chair of the HPC, said homeowners want to get on the list for the prestige that comes along with it.

"People complain because they can't get on it," he said.

CLG status would, according to the presentation, allow the HPC to better help property owners, safeguard the city's heritage, provide a balanced and thoughtful approach to emotionally charged events, and take a proactive versus reactive response.

It also opens up some funding opportunities, Richards said, explaining that some grants require CLG status.

There now are 54 local preservation commissions in Minnesota, of which 38 are CLGs, according to the presentation.

"If you look at who are CLGs are, we're right in the middle," he said.

Richards noted that the city of Bemidji had, at one time, more than 50 structures listed on the National Register of Historical Places, including the Paul and Babe statues and the Carnegie Library.