Why Restore Sanity…

This website is for people who love Frederick and its history but who are fed up with their bossy nannyish obstructionist treatment at the hands of the City’s “Historic Preservation Commission” – which has become more about nitpicking interference and generating paperwork and hearings than about preservation. Founded with the best of intentions the Commission has morphed into a costly obstruction to property improvements and an unreasonable burden on the people and businesses of central Frederick.

The aim of Restore Sanity is to provide a platform for people to document their experiences with this Commission, and make suggestions for its reform. Contributions are welcome.

Restore Sanity’s themes:

1. There IS a need to preserve what is historically important in downtown Frederick but in an intelligent, discriminating fashion and with greater faith in the good sense and good motives of property owners and of voluntary and cooperative neighborly activity, and far less reliance on the politically appointed and bureaucratically controlled Commission.

2. The ‘Historic District’ is too large and diverse to be sensibly subject to a single set of Guidelines – which should be separately tailored to different street corridors, and different blocks of real historic value.

3. The City’s present approach to historic preservation via this Commission is too negative – stopping or burdening citizens trying to improve their properties. The City should have a more proactive approach focussed on blighted areas, and the buildings that lay idle, empty, and decay. It should be removing obstacles to their upgrade and improvement.

4. City rules and permissions on historic preservation should be focussed on the ‘public realm’ – the valuable public streetscapes. The Historic Commission has no business dictating what people build at the backs of their buildings. That is properly a ‘private realm.’

5. The Historic Commission was sponsored by well-intentioned people and some of those associated with it remain public spirited persons but it has suffered common bureaucratic ills of mission-creep and overgrowth – “Submit 15 (paper) copies” of every document ten days before the hearing etc.

6. The voluntary Landmarks Foundation has in the past done excellent work focussing on the really precious historic buildings but its work is now overshadowed by the City’s Historic Commission and its governmental power.

7. The Commission’s Guidelines need serious rethinking and revision – contradictory and ambiguous provisions provide very little guidance as to what is allowed and what isn’t. For all their words, 48,600 of them over 160 pages, it is quite unclear in the Guidelines what history it is they are supposed to preserve.

8. Where clear the Guidelines are over-detailed, nit-picking. Citizens along with architects and other consultants they hire should be trusted to choose the awning, the roof gutters, vents, railings, street number type fonts etc. free of the control of any commissioners.

9. Historic preservation must recognize that only special buildings need to be frozen as museum pieces (Shifferstadt, Barbara Fritchie House etc) and that the overwhelming majority must be allowed to evolve and be adapted by their owners – albeit with respect for their historic elements in the public realm of street frontages.

10. The Historic Commission must be explicitly required in the Guidelines to pay regard to the financial consequences of its decisions and to act in such a way that the benefits of its restriction exceed the costs it imposes on property owners, renters and those doing business here. Otherwise it is a drag on the local economy and a burden to the community.

11. Too often Commission policies – because they are more permissive toward deteriorated or blighted properties – incentivise property owners to neglect on maintenance, and hence encourage blight. A commission supposedly dedicated to promoting preservation too often obstructs preservation.

12.  While historic preservation is important it must not be taken to the point where the present and the future are jeopardized in the name of history. We the residents didn’t sign up to live inside a museum, and to maintain the museum.

Edward L Glaeser, an urban affairs professor at Harvard University has written on the excesses of historic preservation: “It is wise and good to protect the most cherished parts of a city’s architectural history. But… vast historic districts, which include thousands of utterly undistinguished structures, don’t accomplish that goal…  No living city’s future should become a prisoner to its past.” City Journal, Spring 2010.

Peter Samuel, 102 West 3rd Street #1, email petersamuel@mac.com, tel 301-631-1148.

- editor Restore Sanity… 2014-06-10

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