After a contentious recent debate over a possible historic district, Salt Lake City decided to redesign the process:
The goal of the whole exercise is to preserve historic neighborhoods or just plain nice, older neighborhoods from demolitions, outsized remodels and McMansions. The new process can lead to a historic district or landmark site, or it can lead to something less restrictive called a character conservation district.
In both cases, property owners can start the ball rolling by circulating a petition. If 15 percent of property owners within the proposed district sign petitions within six months, the Historic Landmark Commission and the Planning Commission write reports and hold hearings. Ballots would then be mailed to all property owners of record, who would have 30 days to vote for or against the district. If a simple majority supports designation, then a simple majority vote of the City Council could create it. If less than a simple majority of property owners favors a district, then a two-thirds vote of the City Council would be required to create a district.
As you can see, this is not a pure democracy. The City Council could create a district even if a majority of property owners voted against it. But zoning by referendum is not a good idea, either, because sometimes the public interest should trump the wishes of property owners.
A petition to designate a district also could be started by the mayor or by a majority of the City Council, but the same signature and voting processes for property owners would apply.
Lots of communities with established neighborhoods struggle with this issue: how to balance the concerns of property owners and neighborhood residents? This new process seems to put the onus on the voters who have an interest in each neighborhood; if they have a strong opinion about a historic district, they have time to vote. And it seems like the process recognizes the potential for another common issue that arises in communities: how to get enough people to participate in order to reach a consensus? The threshold for moving a petition to the City Council only requires 15% of property owners to be involved and later, the Council can approve a historic district with less neighborhood involvement.
I would be interested to see how well this new procedure fares. These sorts of cases between communal and personal interests are not easy to sort out, particularly when the potential large teardown McMansions are involved. Neighborhoods do change over time but local residents who bought into or who are used to a particular atmosphere or character can be quite resistant.