From where we sit, Georgia’s historic preservation tax incentives may need a little tweaking.
Brunswick is home to plenty of houses and buildings that would benefit from rehabilitation. Many of them are in the heart of the Old Town historic district that is on the National Register of Historic Places, a prerequisite for qualifying for the tax credits.
But when Robin Durant, who owns Bayou Fleet, a riverboat shipping company in Louisiana, applied for the credits after beautifully restoring several extremely dilapidated houses on Howe Street in the historic district, he was denied. The denial, according to the Department of Natural Resources, which oversees the credits, said the floors Durant used and some molding and other features were not in line with the standard that “the removal of historic materials or alteration of features and spaces that characterize a property shall be avoided.”
We understand the desire to keep things as they were to preserve history, but considering the condition of the turn-of-the-20th-century shotgun houses Durant restored when he purchased them in 2004, it is difficult to stomach the knowledge that finishing pieces like crown molding and floor materials may halt future projects he is planning. Durant owns a few buildings on Newcastle Street he had hoped to rehabilitate using the same credits, but he said if he cannot receive the credits through appeals, he may not have the money needed to complete them.
In this case, a state law intended to promote projects like Durant’s on Howe Street that saved six historic cottages from what most certainly would have been demolition may now prevent him from following through on others.
If DNR officials are following the law as it is written and are obliged only to enforce the guidelines with no authority to consider things like economic development and neighborhood revitalization, it is time to alter the law to allow for those considerations.
The Howe Street Cottages turned eyesores into gems, as the Brunswick Historic Preservation Board noted in 2017. They are being used as homes, just as they were before, but they have been outfitted with the modern amenities that make them comfortable today.
There should be a balance between making an attractive space by today’s standards and historic characteristics. The two may not always match, which is when the DNR should have the option to use its discretion when a project is meaningful to improving a community.
Other projects that have been approved include Ponce City Market in Atlanta — a re-imagined warehouse that includes retail, restaurant and residential units — and The Grey — restaurant in Savannah that opened in an old bus station. They are both worthy projects for the tax credits. Both may have kept certain features that were historic to the original use of the buildings, but are far from operating as they originally did.
DNR officials said they work with projects like The Grey to identify “historical character defining features,” as required by the guidelines for the credit. Durant said officials have not visited his project, something we believe could have helped him the way it did other projects.
But then again, we have become accustomed to the reality that unless you are in a bigger city like Atlanta or Savannah, you might not get the same consideration as the favorite children of state government.
Of the 341 project that have been approved for the tax credits, 292 have been in just 10 of the 159 counties in Georgia, and 277 of those have been in the six most populated counties of Fulton, Bibb, Chatham, Muscogee, Richmond and Dekalb. That reads to us as Atlanta, Macon, Savannah, Columbus and Augusta.
Perhaps with some tweaking, the credit could meet the recommendation of a 2017 study by Georgia State University that suggested “The program should consider modifying the award process in a manner that encourages the geographic diversity of the projects between urban and rural areas and across the state.”