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Testimony By Angelique Bamberg, Department of City Planning and staff for the Historic Review Commission & Planning Commission on the Proposed Exemption of Religious Properties From Nomination as City Historic Structures Except By their Owners of Record:

Facts :

1. On December 4, 2002, Councilman Bob O’Connor introduced Bill 1148 into City Council. If passed, this bill would amend the City’s Historic Preservation Ordinance to exempt religious properties from nomination except by their owners of record.

2. City Council has requested that the Historic Review Commission and the City Planning Commission conduct a review of this proposed legislation and report their findings to Council within 60 days.

3. The Historic Review Commission held a Public Hearing on the proposed legislation on January 8, 2003. The HRC voted unanimously to recommend that Council NOT ADOPT the proposed legislation. The Planning Commission held a Public Hearing on January 14, 2003 and another on January 28th, 2003, and voted unanimously to recommend that Council NOT adopt the proposed legislation.

4. Current Ordinance and Nominating Procedures:

a. Under the City of Pittsburgh’s Historic Preservation Ordinance, Title 11 of the City Code of Ordinances, a Historic Structure, Site, or Object may be nominated by:

i. the Mayor;

ii. a member of City Council;

iii. a member of the Planning Commission;

iv. a member of the Historic Review Commission; or

v. its owner of record or any resident of the City of Pittsburgh who has lived here for at least one year.

b. Once a property has been nominated to become a City Historic Structure, Site, or Object, the Historic Review Commission and City Planning Commission hold public hearings on the proposed designation and make recommendations to City Council.

c. City Council receives the recommendations of the Historic Review and Planning Commissions, holds its own public hearing, and votes on the proposed designation. If the property owner objects to the designation and/or if either Commission submits an unfavorable recommendation, a supermajority (six votes) of Council is required to vote for designation.

d. Once a building is nominated and until City Council votes on whether it should be designated, no exterior alteration (including demolition) may take place without the review and approval of the Pittsburgh Historic Review Commission.

5. Religious Properties Currently Designated by the City of Pittsburgh

The City currently has six (6) religious properties designated as City Historic Structures and 11 located in City Historic Districts. One City Historic Structure, a church, was demolished in 2000.

a. Shrine of St. Anthony of Padua, 1700 Harpster Street, Troy Hill
City Historic Structure

b. John Wesley AME Zion Church, 594 Herron Avenue, Hill District
City Historic Structure

c. St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church, 1326 E. Ohio Street, East Allegheny
City Historic Structure

d. Former St. Michael’s Catholic Church and Rectory, 21 Pius Street, South Side Slopes
City Historic Structure

e. Greater Faith Tabernacle Church (demolished), 550 N. Homewood Avenue, Homewood
City Historic Structure

f. Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 957 West North Avenue, Allegheny West
City Historic Structure, Allegheny West Historic District

g. Calvary United Methodist Church, Allegheny and Beech Avenues, Allegheny West
City Historic Structure, Allegheny West Historic District

h. Tabernacle Cosmopolitan Baptist Church, 1240 Buena Vista Street, Mexican War Streets
Mexican War Streets Historic District

i. First Baptist Church of Pittsburgh, 159 N. Bellefield Street, Oakland
Oakland Civic Center Historic District

j. St. Paul’s Cathedral, Fifth Avenue, Oakland
Oakland Civic Center Historic District

k. Bellefield Presbyterian Church, 4001 Fifth Avenue, Oakland
Oakland Civic Center Historic District

l. St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral, 419 Dithridge Street, Oakland
Oakland Civic Center Historic District

m. Heinz Chapel, Bigelow Boulevard and Fifth Avenue, Oakland
Oakland Civic Center Historic District

n. New Zion Baptist Church, 1304 Manhattan Street, Manchester
Manchester Historic District

o. Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, 4100 Bigelow Boulevard, Oakland
Schenley Farms Historic District

6. Applications to the Historic Review Commission

Since 1977, the Historic Review Commission has received a total of 20 applications for exterior work from owners of designated historic religious properties. Of these, 19 were approved, including two for demolition (one of a church, one of an accessory building); one application (for the installation of aluminum awnings) was denied.

7. Legal Issues

Religious institutions are not exempt from zoning and other local land-use laws, as long as the laws do not threaten the free expression of religion. However, several pieces of legislation at the national, state, and local levels currently limit the amount of regulation that local governments may place on religious institutions. The validity of these new laws is to be decided by the courts.

As it stands, the Pittsburgh Historic Preservation Ordinance is a neutral statute, applying equally to all classes of property and to all property owners. The proposed changes to the ordinance would single out religious properties for unique treatment under the law. The City Law Department is currently conducting a review of the legality of the proposed Council Bill in order to determine if preferential treatment of religious institutions by a city government is valid under the Pennsylvania constitution as well as other federal and state statutes.The following issues must be closely considered in the proposed legislation:

a. Equal Treatment Under the Law

The Pittsburgh Historic Preservation Ordinance establishes that historic preservation is a compelling public interest for its ability to, among other things, “promote the economic and general welfare of the City of Pittsburgh” (City Code, Title 11, 1.1[b]). The Ordinance does not distinguish between classes of persons or properties who share this interest, but provides for a public process by which all citizens may participate in every activity of municipal preservation, from nomination and designation of property to hearings on work applications and economic hardship.

The test of applicability of the ordinance is the historical and/or architectural significance of a structure, district, site, or object, not the financial or other circumstances of an individual property owner or class or property owners.

The proposed bill would single out religious institutions as a distinct class and provide for their preferential treatment under the law. This would benefit the owners of religious properties by making compliance with the Historic Preservation Ordinance optional on their part. Staff urges the Commission to consider whether this would benefit the general public of the City of Pittsburgh, in whose interest the law was created.

b. Existing Relief from Undue Burdens

In speaking publicly about this proposed change, its advocates have spoken about the “burdens” of historic designation and benefits to them of being exempt. Yet there are existing means by which religious property owners may seek relief from the perceived burdens of historic designation.

i. The Historic Designation Process
The designation process itself provides two checks against unwanted designation. First, the Historic Review Commission holds a Preliminary Determination hearing to determine whether a new nomination has merit. This serves as a weeding process for frivolous or inappropriate nominations, and those which do not meet the test have the regulation of the Historic Review Commission lifted for the duration of the process.
Second, a supermajority (six votes) of City Council is required to designate a property over its owner’s objections. Owners of nominated religious properties have the opportunity to argue their position before Council in every case. Although it is not a written rule, Council has generally been reluctant to designate property over an owner’s objections.

ii. Certificate of Economic Hardship
An applicant who is denied a Certificate of Appropriateness by the Historic Review Commission for any exterior work may apply for a Certificate of Economic Hardship. If the Historic Review Commission determines that denial of the Certificate of Appropriateness has resulted in loss of all reasonable use and/or return from the property or substantial hardship for the property owner, the Commission will then consult with the Department of City Planning about provision of relief from the economic hardship in the form of loans, grants, tax abatements, transfer of development rights, or other means.

iii. Historic Religious Properties Initiative
Funds are available to assist the owners of religious properties with historically appropriate repairs and renovations. Each year, Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation awards between $50,000 and $60,000 in grants to historic religious institutions for bricks and mortar projects. Technical assistance is also awarded to several institutions each year. To qualify, a religious institution must be located in Allegheny County, be at least 50 years old, have an active, though not necessarily large congregation, and be of architectural or historical significance.

A nonprofit organization called Partners for Sacred Places performs a similar function on a national level. Grants are also available from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.

iv. Tax Exemption
Of course, we must acknowledge that the purpose of tax-exempt status is not to provide a fund for preservation activities. However, freedom from taxation is a costly civic burden of which religious institutions have already been relieved. This suggests that religious institutions do not suffer unduly from obligations which apply equally to the taxed.

c. Applications to the Historic Review Commission by Religious Institutions
Historic Review Commission records do not support the claim that historic designation has been a burden on religious property owners.

In the 26 years since the first religious structures were designated by the City of Pittsburgh, only one application (for the installation of aluminum awnings) has been denied by the Historic Review Commission, and only one religious building (St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church) has been designated over the objections of its owner, the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh.* In 95% of cases before the Historic Review Commission concerning the treatment of religious structures, the applicant and the Commission have been in agreement over preservation methods, materials, and design.

The concerns of religious property owners appear to be about the potential burdens of future applications and nominations. The current Historic Preservation Ordinance provides for fairly resolving these, as they arise, on a case-by-case basis, as shown above.*(Another property, the former St. Michael’s Church and Rectory, also was designated against the wishes of the Catholic Diocese, but since this church was desanctified and not used for religious worship at the time, it would not have been considered a “religious structure” under the definition in the proposed amendment to the Historic Preservation Ordinance. In any case, St. Michael’s is currently being rehabilitated as condominiums by its new owner, with plans that have been approved by the Historic Review Commission.)

8. The staff for the Historic Review Commission and the Planning Commission stated that she did not believe that sufficient evidence exists that the current Historic Preservation Ordinance creates a burden for the owners of religious properties, or interferes with the free expression of religion, to justify the proposed changes to the Ordinance.

Rather, staff finds that the owners of religious properties are treated fairly and equally with other citizens under the ordinance, and the proposed changes would create a remedy for a burden that is imagined, but does not currently exist. The current ordinance provides adequate opportunities for every property owner to seek relief from burdensome Historic Review Commission decisions on a case-by-case basis without providing a blanket exemption for one class of citizens. In addition, assistance is available in the form of loans and grants to the owners of historic religious buildings.

Although exemptions for religious properties from historic preservation regulations do exist in a few other communities, these have been and will continue to be challenged in the courts. By passing the proposed amendments to Pittsburgh’s Historic Preservation Ordinance, the City would be making unnecessary changes to a fair and functional law and opening itself to costly and time-consuming litigation.

As of this date, the required public hearing before Council has not been scheduled. We concur and urge the public to write Council of their concerns regarding this legislation.

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

100 West Station Square Drive, Suite 450

Pittsburgh, PA 15219

Phone: 412-471-5808  |  Fax: 412-471-1633