Burlingame officials are grappling with historic home requirements, seeking to encourage residents preserving their properties rather than initiate a citywide survey searching for such potential landmarks.

The Burlingame City Council agreed during a study session Monday, June 3, to expand throughout the city the Mills Act program allowing historic home owners to seek a variety of tax credits and incentives when considering renovations. No final decision was made and the issue will return for further deliberation later.

The program, which is currently only available downtown, was preferred to an alternative suggestion which would have initiated a survey of all Burlingame properties in search of those which may be historic resources.

The discussion rose from the struggles some property owners encountered when trying to renovate their homes, most of which were built 50 or more years ago. When seeking permits to rebuild, some applicants were met by opposition from neighbors who claimed the land was a historic resource, which raised the threshold for renovation approval under state law.

Such claims often triggered the homeowner needing to pay about $4,000 for a study to determine whether their property is significant, such as whether it was previously owned by a historic figure or was the site of a notable event.

If a property is deemed historic, the extent of allowable renovation is often limited and collaboration with city officials is required to find an appropriate project which preserves the important elements.

In an attempt to lift that burden for property owners, city officials considered hiring a consultant to survey all properties and identify homes which could be historic resources.

Those properties flagged would be notified that further study — and investment — would be required to determine whether the land is historically significant, while those cleared would have some frame of reference moving forward.

But critical officials noted any survey findings would not be binding, and the door would remain open for the potential that an aggrieved neighbor making historic accusations could still force homeowners to pay for an official judgment.

“I just don’t think it really settles anything,” said Vice Mayor Emily Beach, according to video of the meeting, in reference to the potential citywide property survey.

Councilman Michael Brownrigg shared a similar perspective.

“I find it hard to support spending public money to do a survey of the entire city which feels like a lot of wasted work for an outcome that won’t be definitive,” he said.

While Councilmembers Ann Keighran and Ricardo Ortiz also agreed, Mayor Donna Colson said she favored completing the survey in an effort to offer some clarity to property owners, as well as those who may otherwise unknowingly purchase a home with the intent to renovate it only to find they need to make an additional investment. A citywide survey would cost approximately $200,000 to $300,000.

“I would rather have a more comprehensive list from which to start, so buyers and sellers have a baseline of understanding,” she said.

Megan Baldwin, who bought a home with the intent to renovate when a neighbor attempted to block the effort with claims that the property was historic, also promoted officials launching the city initiative.

“I like the idea of a citywide survey — something that is more transparent, fair and uniformly applied,” she said, noting the existing process is subjective.

Recognizing her minority position though, Colson suggested officials work to build awareness of the historic preservation requirements through the local Realtor community, so as to not surprise new homebuyers.

Also, officials agreed to promote the expanded eligibility of the tax incentive and credit program which would offer Mills Act benefits to owners of properties recognized as historic resources.

“If we can get resources for people, I think that is a no-brainer,” said Colson.

Brownrigg agreed, noting the benefits could be widely available across Burlingame because so much of the city’s housing stock is aging.

“I very much like positive incentives and encouraging good action,” he said.

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