Amid years of talk about Nashville as an up-and-coming metropolis of the South there have been increased calls to protect the city’s “soul,” balancing growth with the preservation of Nashville’s historic neighborhoods and places.
But the department tasked with carrying out that goal is buckling under the strain, and Mayor Karl Dean’s proposed budget doesn’t offer any relief.
“Everybody has a breaking point, and I just feel like we’re at that breaking point,” Tim Walker, executive director of the Metro Historical Commission, told The City Paper. “There’s just no way to do more work without more manpower.”
The MHC is the broad heading given to a department that contains two commissions. One, of the same name, acts as a historical advocacy and education agency. Among other things, the MHC facilitates events like the ongoing Civil War Sesquicentennial, and identifies and nominates significant local properties for recognition on the National Register of Historic Places.
The other — the Metro Historic Zoning Commission — is essentially a regulatory board, reviewing applications for new historic overlay districts, and permits for new construction, additions or demolition within the existing districts.
Historic overlay districts are an increasingly popular tool — proposed and approved by Metro Council members, typically at the urging of their constituents — that uses zoning regulations to preserve the historic nature of neighborhoods, as opposed to singling out individual buildings. And that is where the pressure on the department has been the strongest.
Over the past five years, Walker said, the department has overseen the creation of eight new historic overlay districts, and the expansion of two existing districts, resulting in a 55 percent increase in the number of properties within the staff’s purview. The number of permits issued by the MHZC in that time has increased by 80 percent.
Walker has said the department was already understaffed with nine positions. But over that same five-year period, as its burden has increased, the MHZC has lost a position. At the mayor’s budget hearings in March, Walker presented a request for an increase in funding to allow for an additional employee, but that request was not granted in the mayor’s budget proposal.
Walker emphasized the benefits of historic overlay districts, saying they “stabilize and increase property values” and have “a very tangible effect on Metro’s bottom line.” But he said the commission can’t take on any more right now.
“There’s just so much anybody can do and do adequately,” he said. ”I feel like we’re not crossing our T’s and dotting our I’s now because the workload is so great.”
The increased workload has forced the MHZC to increase turnaround time on overlay and permit applications, he said, because the staff simply did not have enough time to review and return them in a timely manner. Moreover, he said, one staff member is dedicated to checking up on properties once permits have been issued to ensure those permits are being followed. Now, though, he said it’s become nearly impossible for one person to check each property every month, and they’re “falling way behind.”
“It affects my staff morale,” Walker said. “I have a really dedicated professional staff. Everyone on staff except the office manager has a master’s degree or higher. They’re very qualified, they’re very experienced, and they’re very professional and they do a great job. I don’t want to start losing people because the workload is so great.”
As The City Paper was going to press, Walker was headed to a budget hearing before the council. He said he wouldn’t be asking the council directly to amend the mayor’s proposal. Instead, he said he planned to make the same case he made before the mayor “and then it will be up for the council to decide what they think is important.”