J. Peter Byrne, the new Mayor's Agent. (Historic Preservation Office)

In particularly contentious historic preservation cases—-mostly when property owners wants to raze their historic buildings and the Historic Preservation Review Board says they can’t—-the mayor is formally the person who’s supposed to decide. Recent cases of note that have gone to that next level of appeal (and sometimes even higher, to the District’s Court of Appeals) include the Takoma Theater, the Third Church of Christ Scientist, houses on New Jersey Avenue, and the Heritage Foundation’s building at 227 Pennsylvania Avenue SE.

But the mayor usually doesn’t know much about historic preservation, so he appoints someone to make the determination for him, called a “mayor’s agent.” For the past few years, it’s been Office of Planning Director Harriet Tregoning. Several preservationists—from the same quarter as those who demanded that Mayor Vince Gray replace her—-have been upset about that, grumbling that Tregoning isn’t a lawyer and comes from the city government’s economic development agency, prejudicing her in favor of development rather than preservation.

I don’t think those two things are mutually exclusive, and I’m not sure I’d disagree with many of her decisions. But the rankled preservationists are at least correct in one sense: the Office of Planning director has a lot on her plate without rendering voluminous legal decisions in historic preservation cases, and it makes sense to have someone more independent.

That just happened, with the appointment of J. Peter Byrne, who has just about the most impeccable qualifications one could ask for, including having started the excellent database of District historic preservation decisions—-to which he’ll soon be able to add.