NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - The Vieux Carre Property Owners Association was taking a stand Tuesday against a new city policy that already appears to be keeping property owners from improving some of the most historic properties in the country.
The policy imposes thousands of dollars in fees on those who own property with balconies and overhangs. They are the balconies and wrought iron that adorn some of the most significant architecture in the country, and now they're being subjected to fees many see as exorbitant.
"I was very surprised to learn about the fee," said homeowner Gregory Jones.
Under a law recently passed by the state, the city may charge homeowners for the air rights over sidewalks, and that means fees of up to $4,000 a year in some cases for balconies that - until recently - went tax free.
"This is not just a French Quarter issue. You're penalizing people who own properties which are a calling card," said Meg Lousteau with the Vieux Carre Property Owners' Association.
But it's not just balconies, stoops or galleries with post-supports subject to taxes, Gregory Jones had to fork over $1,000 for an overhang to renovate his home on Dauphine.
"I don't think it's fair for someone to charge us for air rights," Jones said.
The new fees are a concern for preservationists and contractors.
"I've got four projects canceled because of the servitude," said contractor Charles Ransdell.
Homeowners also complain that the fee appears arbitrary, with some balconies being charged more than others.
"The same size balcony down the street was half that [$4,000] cost," Ransdell said.
Homeowners are also concerned that if anything happens to someone on these structures, the city will bear none of the liability.
"If someone were to trip in front of your house - it had nothing to do with your overhang - and sue the city, it would be our responsibility to pay for the lawyer," Ransdell said.
City spokesman Hayne Rainey said: "We are required by the La. constitution to receive fair market value for the use of public property, including air rights, in addition to keeping the public safe, and establishing liability for encroachments on the right of way."
But preservationists worry.
"It's part of the fabric of the city. It doesn't make sense to penalize people for that," said Lousteau.
Preservationists say the city should be providing incentives for historic property maintenance - not penalties. Contractor Charles Randell said one homeowner recently canceled a project to rebuild a balcony that was torn down 50 years ago because of the new air rights fees.
Preservationist Robert Cangelosi said it is his understanding that the state passed a law that a city "may" charge for air rights, not "must" charge. He said the fees are already holding up several projects he's involved with.