In the Introduction chapter of the Frederick Historic District Guidelines under section P. Degree of importance (p15) the notion of ‘resources’ (sites, structures, objects or parts of these) is introduced and the distinction between Contributing and Non-Contributing resources.
A. Contributing resources:
1. help define the district
2. add historical or architectural value: or
3. generally, were built in during the period of historic significance (more than 50 years old)
In logic the ‘or’ at the end of the second criterion means that a ‘resource’ that satisfies any one of the three criteria is thereby Contributing. Hence generally everything older than 50 years old is Contributing. The Commission sometimes seems to ignore the logically important ‘or’ and proceed as if it’s an ‘and’- which raises the bar much higher on what is Contributing.
The next paragraph of the Guidelines on Non-contributing resources says that Non-contributing resources are those that don’t help define, and don’t add historic/architectural value. The ‘and’ says in effect that to be classed non-contributing the ‘resources’ must neither help define nor be of historical/architectural value. Generally stuff less than 50 years old is non-contributing.
Check one box of three boxes and you’re in
Note first that this is a very fine meshed net given the ‘or’ in 2. Read strictly it sweeps up most properties in the historic district.
And note also there is no mention here of ‘integrity’ as a factor in the classifications contributing/non-contributing. We’ll shorten Contributing Resource to Contrib and Non-Contributing Resource to Noncontrib.
The classification is important because the Commission is then instructed to apply a different level of judgment to applications for change depending on whether they are classed as Contrib or Noncontrib.
Contribs are to be “judged strictly” but Noncontribs “may not” be strictly judged…. unless the plans would “seriously impair” the historic, archeological or architectural surrounds (in the next paragraph Q. Judgement of plans, p15)
From whole site to a doorknob
A second huge problem with applying the contrib/noncontrib test in a fair and consistent way is this provision’s scope. What the heck is it exactly that is being classified? The Frederick Guidelines provide (p15 and elsewhere) huge discretion to the HPC saying that the classification may refer to “Buildings, structures, sites, or objects (or parts thereof).” So the contrib/non-contrib judgment can be applied to everything (a site) or to minutae (a doorknob is a part of a door, an object.) And to anything in between – a roof, part of a roof, a sunroom, a window, a facade, shutters, the ‘ell’ or back of a building….
Such wide discretion to define the scope of the contrib/noncontrib classification gives the Commission great arbitrary power. And suffuses the whole HPC regulatory process with uncertainty, raising serious issues of fairness, due process.
We’ll examine now where the the distinction is specifically flagged and guidance provided to the Commission.
Still in the Introduction (chapter 1) under ’S. Deviations from the Guidelines’ (p17) where the standard for deviant rulings is slightly differently worded for Noncontribs as opposed to Contribs. To our eye the difference is so small as to be meaningless.
It arises in detailed prescriptions that fill up the middle pages of the Guidelines. Under Chapter 4 Materials for Rehabilitation page 45 use of stucco and parging on top of brick or block is allowed on Noncontribs, but not allowed on Contribs. Also on p53 on ‘metal walls’ (G.) these must be repaired on Contrib buildings implying at least that it may be replaced on Noncontribs. Next p58 under L. terra cotta, its repair and preservation is required for Contribs only and replacement is only allowed if it is deemed beyond repair, in which case it must be replaced to match the original…. or the Commission gets to “determine a replacement strategy on a case by case basis.” p58
The implication is that if your terra cotta item is Noncontrib you aren’t put through all this HPC waterboarding.
Next in Chapter 5’s prescriptions for rehab of various building elements under D. Treatment Guidelines for Windows spandrel glass this will not be approved on “significant or contributing” buildings, but is OK on Noncontribs.
Near the end (p105) of Chapter 6 Guidelines for Special Building Types under the heading ‘Recent Special Buildings’ World War 2 Quonset huts – all corrugated iron with curved roof and back and sliding garage doors – are dubbed Contribs.
The Contrib/Noncontrib dichotomy crops up again in Additions (Chapter 9 p133 on) under F. Additions that are not permitted on page 135, saying additions to “contributing and significant” properties will not be approved if they are visible from the public way. On Noncontribs additions may be approved if they don’t “negatively impact the integrity of the historic streetscape.” p135
And of course Contrib versus Noncontrib is big in the chapter on Demolitions, Chapter 11 p147 on. It is a very confused chapter, only exceeded in its logical incoherence by the chapter on Landscapes and streetscapes (Chapter 8) where it isn’t even clear whether Contrib/Noncontrib is supposed to apply.
The Demolition Guidelines are intended to discourage demolition of Contribs, they say (p147) so the review is “deliberate and thorough,” polite words for long-drawn out and unpredictable and a major pain for the applicant, and neighbors.
“Demolition will be considered only when all possible alternatives to preservation have been exhausted.” So to get a demolition permit to remove a Contrib is an exhaustingly long and uncertain process.
Plus the Guidelines say under the head C. Demolition by Neglect: “Contributing properties that are greatly deteriorated because of deferred maintenance will not be approved for demolition.”
Of course buildings deteriorate from wear and tear, the weather and the simple passage of time. Maintenance can only offset some of these processes, so it is often difficult to determine whether, or how much any “deferred maintenance” was the cause of deterioration. Deterioration usually reaches a point where further maintenance is ineffectual and rebuilds of parts are needed.
But in the Guidelines the apparently unqualified bar to issuing a demolition permit to a property heavily deteriorated due to lack of maintenance in section C. (p147) is undercut two pages later by H. and I. (p149)
H. says in considering an application for demolition the Commission should consider its “importance” and the replacement plan.
I. section says that even buildings of unusual importance may be demolished if its presence is:
- a deterrent to a major improvement program
- its retention causes undue financial hardship to the owner
- is not in the best interests of a majority of people in the community
If the building is contributing demolition will be denied if
- its loss compromises the integrity of the streetscape
- its loss compromises surrounding historic properties
- it is an important part of a larger historic feature
The requirement for demolition of Noncontribs is almost identical.
Commonsense would dictate that the HPC take into account the condition of the building whose demolition is sought. Amazingly the Guidelines chapter on Demolition has not a word about how the condition of a building should play into decisions on demolition, or even whether it should be considered.
The incompetence of the writers of these Guidelines is striking – both for the contradictory provisions (C. and I.,) and what is left completely unaddressed – the state of the building in question, sometimes captured in the phrase ‘structural integrity.’
Until the Guidelines are rewritten to inject some logic the HP Commissioners will fly blind.
But more broadly, the attempt to use regulation to combat slow but steady ‘demolition by neglect’ – letting nature take its course – is usually a failure, and only delays the building’s demise. Its fatal weakness is that it punishes neighbors to living with blight, turning them into a strong local constituency in favor of demolition. Economically viable buildings will rarely be neglected because neglect is not in the owner’s interest – unless an outside body like the HPC is demanding expensive treatments.
Only when a building is economically distressed – and the owner sees repairs as throwing good money after bad will a building owner neglect it to the point of serious deterioration. Or if the owner simply doesn’t have the money to do the repairs.
The Guidelines were written by preservation enthusiasts who overestimate the power of regulation to get property owners to spend money they don’t see as being in their interest to spend. Therefore the threat to deny a permit for demolition in cases of deterioration from neglect is largely bluff. Maybe it makes the regulators feel good to be “voting for preservation,” but the result on the streets will be more blight and anger at the City’s “Hysterical commission.”
It is commonsense to want to preserve the beautiful and functional from the past and to be done with the ugly and dysfunctional. But the historic district Guidelines recognize no sensible distinctions of this kind. The historic preservationist regulators therefore will proclaim the value of built junk – just because it is historic.
Commissioner Carrie Albee can declare that rather than vote to approve a demolition permit she’d rather let an old blighted building that once had historic merit sit there and slowly turn to dust. That kind of gritty churchillian commitment to the cause of preservation will make her a hero among preservation enthusiasts, none of whom have to actually live with the blight. It discredits the regulators with the nearby neighborhood and the broader community.