swissavehouseA rewrite of the city’s rules for forming conservation districts is headed to City Council after the zoning board approved it Thursday.

City staff and the Dallas Builder’s Association pushed for the change, arguing that the process should be more transparent and that the changes are in the interest of property owners’ rights. But the Dallas Homeowners League, the Old Oak Cliff Conservation League and some conservation district residents argued that the change will make it impossible to create a district in the future.

And if Dallas wants to be a world-class city, they say, it must stay keen on architectural preservation.

City Plan Commission voted unanimously Thursday to approve the new conservation district ordinance. The board’s approval included two last-minute amendments favoring the homeowners league’s suggestions.

Both of those points have to do with initiating the process to become a conservation district.

City staff had recommended requiring that 75 percent of all homeowners in a proposed conservation district area sign a petition. The board amended that requirement to 51 percent. The Plan Commission also added an amendment to increase the amount of time neighborhoods would be given to submit a final application. A neighborhood of 200 or fewer homes would have one year; a neighborhood of 500 or fewer would have 15 months; and larger neighborhoods would have 18 months.

An amendment which failed would’ve nixed the requirement that neighbors set a list of zoning points they wish to regulate at the very beginning of the process.

Attorney Melissa Kingston of the homeowners league and the Belmont Addition conservation district argued against the changes, and she said the vote went better than she had expected. But she will continue to argue her points to City Council, she says.

Her main concern now is that neighbors would be required to lay out the list of zoning items and then get 51 percent of their neighbors to agree to that before the process can begin.

“A small group of folks will come up with things they want and then put them on the petition and then those things can’t be changed,” she says. “That robs the neighborhood of the opportunity to exercise democracy and to collaborate … it causes distress from the get-go.”

But commissioner Margot Murphy argued that neighbors should know up front what would be involved, otherwise, it’s “like signing a blank check.” She says the ordinance change will make the process more transparent, faster and less contentious.

Kingston thinks the opposite is true, and that this is a move to discourage conservation districts because they cause too much work for city staff. Historic districts are different because they are regulated by the Landmark Commission. With conservation districts, every change and permit has to go through the city.

“It’s such a difficult process as it it,” she told the panel. “You will not see another conservation district in Dallas if this is passed. And I say that as respectfully as I can.”