Several times when citizens have complained to Mayor McClement about extremism and obstruction at the HPC he’s told them his “hands are tied” or “I don’t have much say.” He has also said that Frederick is committed to its Guidelines by the terms of grants it receives to help pay the salaries of staff preservationists Lisa Murphy and Christina Martinkosky. Liberalizing the Guidelines might trigger a withdrawal of US$s, the Mayor has suggested.
That’s not quite right.
Nothing in the grant conditions prevents more pragmatic preservationism from being pursued in Frederick. For example the HPC could take and consider evidence on the costs of various preservation options and the financial consequences. Many preservation agencies including ones receiving grants from the US Government take account of the costs of their rulings. And they weigh whether the preservation they are requiring is worthwhile in light of the costs they are imposing on property owners. Our HPC should be doing this – at least in cases where the applicant pleads a financial case.
A more targeted overlay
Also nothing by way of conditions in US grants prevents the City of Frederick from revising the geographic scope of the ‘historic preservation overlay’ either.
Very few historic preservation agencies have such a huge tract of their city zoned for ‘historic preservation’ as Frederick. Most historic districts around the country are a fraction of the size of Frederick’s and are focussed on streets or blocks of indisputable historic beauty.
Frederick’s historic district contains many streets that are, frankly, rather scrappy. They have little by way of good historic buildings that deserve special ‘protection.’ And their residents would love to be free of the HPC’s meddlesome and costly controls. We’d all be better off with a preservation overlay map more targeted at the historically precious streets.
The coverage of preservation review is a purely local decision.
Also in some important respects Frederick’s preservation Guidelines are more extreme that the US secretary of the Interior/Park Service guidance. Here’s just one example, though an important one.
“Degree of importance”
The Frederick Town Historic District Design Guidelines (Guidelines) in the Introduction under “P Degree of Importance” (p15) say
Resources are either contributing or non-contributing.
“Contributing resources” are:
1. Buildings, structures, sites or objects (or parts thereof) that help define the district
2. Buildings, structures, sites or objects (or parts thereof) that add historical or architectural value, or
3. Generally those Buildings, structures, sites or objects (or parts thereof) built during the Historic District’s “Period of Significance” which section R p16 defines as 1750 to 50 years ago, 1963.
CRITIQUE 1: The inclusion of the all-embracing phrase “objects (or parts thereof)” gives the Historic Commission way too much power. It allows them to cherrypick small portions of a building in order to veto an improvement project or to bargain arbitrary changes they want in plans requiring their approval. This goes well beyond anything in the US Secretary of the Interior’s Standards and Guidelines (US Standards) – http://www.nps.gov/hps/tps/standguide/overview/choose_treat.htm – in allowing tiny details chosen by Frederick City staff preservation staff and HPC Historic Commissioners to be an issue for ‘preservation’ regardless of their real importance.
By contrast the US Standards say merely that:
“New additions should be designed and constructed so that the character-defining features of the historic building are not radically changed, obscured, damaged, or destroyed in the process of rehabilitation.”
Small, obscure “objects (or parts thereof)” that can be deemed “contributing resources” under the Frederick Guidelines have no reflection in the US Standards.
CRITIQUE 2: Point 3 in the Frederick Guidelines places a heavy blanket of Commission control over virtually all buildings in the historic district regardless of their historic significance. This too is far more severe that the US Standards which state: “New additions should be designed and constructed so that the character-defining features of the historic building are not radically changed, obscured, damaged, or destroyed in the process of rehabilitation.”
Frederick Historic Commissioners can nitpick about “objects (or parts thereof)” – for example a section of roof at the rear of a building whereas the US Standards focus properly on the larger question of “character defining features” of the building that are to be preserved. In our example a rear roof can hardly define the character of a building. Usually the character defining features of a historic building are its streetfront facade, its main roof and the shape, texture and materials of the most prominent part of the building. Prominence is key to what is significant in the public realm of the street.
Note also the qualifying adverb “radically” in the US Standards. Changes are allowed to a historic building so long as they don’t make “radical” changes to it. Frederick Historic Commissioners by contrast have arbitrary power to pick and choose according to details down to “objects (or parts thereof” and to block changes by property owners that affect these minor, non-prominent features.
CRITIQUE 3: US Standards sensibly advise attention to the building’s “historic significance” whereas the Frederick Guidelines are a huge trawl net which haul in almost every building in the historic district regardless of its historic significance.
US Standards say:
“Choosing the most appropriate treatment for a building requires careful decision-making about a building’s historical significance, as well taking into account a number of other considerations:
“Relative importance in history. Is the building a nationally significant resource–a rare survivor or the work of a master architect or craftsman? Did an important event take place in it? National Historic Landmarks, designated for their ‘exceptional significance in American history,’ or many buildings individually listed in the National Register often warrant Preservation or Restoration….”
Nothing in the Frederick Guidelines requires the Commissioners to consider a building according to its historic significance. The HPC has control over anything down to “objects (or parts thereof)” merely because they happen to be 50 years or older, and because the preservation staff and commissioners choose to dub them “contributing resources.”
SANITY PROPOSAL: The excesses of power granted the Frederick Historic Commission over the US Standards should be systematically stripped out of Frederick’s City Land Management Code.
Second Mayor McClement needs to work harder to get his staff in line. They are the principal enablers of extremism in City preservation policy along with chairman Scott Winnette.
Former White House correspondent Donald Lambro recalls: “When one of our interviews was over, [President] Reagan drew me to the side of the Oval Office and confided, ‘You know, just between us, one of the hardest things in a government this size … no matter what our people on top are trying to do … is to know that down there underneath is that permanent (staff) structure that is resisting everything you’re doing.’ “
P. Samuel 2014-07-10
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