Texas Supreme Court holds historic preservation ordinance is not “zoning” but must still comply with certain Chapter 211 requirements

Powell, et al., v City of Houston, 19-0689 (Tex. June 4, 2021)

The Texas Supreme Court determined that Houston’s Historic Preservation Ordinance was not a zoning ordinance and therefore the zoning restrictions under state law do not apply. However, certain provisions of Chapter 211 of the Texas Local Government Code still apply to the ordinance.

The Houston City Council adopted a Historic Preservation ordinance which required owners of properties in those districts to seek approval from the Houston Archaeological and Historical Commission before modifying or developing their property. The City originally had a waiver provision, but it was removed in 2010 and instead adopted a procedure allowing a neighborhood to seek reconsideration of a designation. Several property owners brought this suit seeking a declaratory judgment that the Ordinance is void and unenforceable because it violated the City Charter’s limits on zoning and it does not comply with certain provisions of Chapter 211 of the Local Government Code. The trial court ruled for the City after a bench trial. The owners appealed arguing the ordinance is a zoning regulation, but the court of appeals disagreed and affirmed the trial court’s order.

The Houston City Charter does not prohibit the City from zoning altogether, but it limits the City’s power to adopt a zoning ordinance by requiring six months’ notice of any proposed ordinance and voter approval in a binding referendum. Zoning regulations have numerous characteristics, and given the prevalence of zoning ordinances, not all of these characteristics are always present. However, generally, a zoning ordinance is defined as a city ordinance that regulates the use to which land within various parts of the city may be put. It also allocates uses to the various districts of a municipality, as by allocating residences to certain parts and businesses to other parts, but more on a comprehensive basis throughout the entire city. Conversely a “historic preservation” is the effort to conserve, preserve, and protect artifacts and developed places, including structures and landscapes, of historical significance, and does not fall under traditional zoning categories. The Court analyzed various aspects of zoning and definitions, historically and determined the ordinance was not a zoning ordinance. For example, the ordinance impacts a site by requiring alterations and additions to a building to remain compatible with the building’s own existing height, size, and location, and with that of the rest of the district. Because each building is regulated according to its own features or the features of nearby buildings, there is no uniform standardization of height, bulk, and placement across the district as in traditional zoning laws. In sum, the Ordinance does not regulate the purposes for which land can be used, lacks geographic comprehensiveness, impacts each site differently in order to preserve and ensure the historic character of building exteriors, and does not adopt the enforcement and penalty provisions characteristic of a zoning ordinance. Therefore, it is not zoning.

However, Chapter 211 of the Local Government Code subjects regulations that would not traditionally be considered zoning to certain procedural requirements, such as regulation of structures in historically significant areas and certain pumping and use of groundwater. The fact Chapter 211 applies to this type of regulation does not mean it qualifies as zoning. However, even though Chapter 211 applies, the owners failed to establish that the City did not comply with the requirements.  For example, the ordinance actually qualifies, by itself, as a comprehensive plan for its intended purpose. As a result, the court of appeals order is affirmed.

If you would like to read this opinion, click here. JUSTICE BUSBY delivered the opinion of the Court.