The Frederick News Post (FNP) ran an informative report Thursday (2015-04-23) by Jen Fifield on some of the angst surrounding Frederick’s unpopular Historic Preservation Commission. We’ll quote some key parts (FNP) and add comment.
FNP: “When a couple living on Third Street went to the Historic Preservation Commission in July wanting to replace their metal roof with asphalt shingles, they told the commission how they didn’t have the money for metal, and half their neighbors had asphalt roofs.
“The majority of the commissioners denied their request, stating that a metal roof is historically appropriate, and asphalt is not. But when the couple came back again in October for a second chance, Chase Tydings, the alternate commission member, spoke up.
“The change wouldn’t alter the historic street scape, he said, and the integrity of the historic property would not be compromised.
“Two of the commission members who are more strict about enforcing the rules were absent at that meeting. Tydings’ motion to approve the asphalt roof passed.
“When it comes to which renovation project requests are approved in the city of Frederick’s Frederick Town Historic District, it often comes down to the opinions of the individual commission members.”
COMMENT: This is HPC14-407 (later resubmitted HPC14-803) Lori and Curran Powers house at 337E3rd Street where an industrial rolled corrugated metal roof was chronically leaking causing mold and internal damage to a Queen Anne style house that had been converted by previous owners to commercial use. The Powers, a school teacher and nurse were told by staff they needed to replace with standing seam metal at twice the cost of asphalt shingle. They couldn’t afford a new metal roof and proposed an asphalt shingle roof.
The Guidelines were against them, since these only allow asphalt shingle as replacement-in-kind. In the first hearing July 10 they got no joy, commissioners being reluctant to vote against the staff report. At the same time the Powers themselves and neighbors made a compelling case against strict application fo the guideliines given the large extra cost to the Powers – they said they might be forced to abandon the house – and the unreasonableness of denying asphalt shingle here. (Oddly no official Minutes for this hearing wae filed, but my memory is there was no denial as the FNP reports, just a deferral of a vote.)
Guidelines application here was outrageous
Trouble is (1) the Guidelines on asphalt shingle are routinely disregarded by City staff and the Commission for new construction – see Comstock’s Maxwell Square and North Pointe townhouses. The City in effect has one rule for developers (OK to asphalt shingle) and another for private homeowners (“Sorry, asphalt shingles not appropriate”)
(2) Plus asphalt shingle is the predominant roof material in the Powers’ block at the eastern end of 3rd St. More of the houses around the Powers have asphalt shingle roofs than any other roof material.
The Powers case (this time HPC14-803) was heard again October 23. Again City staffer Lisa Murphy quoted the Guidelines p87 where
they state a replacement roofing must be the same roof material type if original or appropriate to the building or a roof material used earlier.
Murphy said she had found old pictures of the building in files showing it roofed with standing seam metal, the hand-formed metal preferred under the Guidelines. The Guidelines say p61 that asphalt shingles can only be used to replace existing deteriorated asphalt shingles or on additions – not in place of another roofing material or in new construction. In Chapter 10 on New Construction p142 under 1. Materials: “The materials outlined in Chapter 4 (on rehabilitation) are suggested for use in new construction and are generally considered to be compatible throughout the Historic District.”
So the Guidelines clearly bar asphalt shingle in new construction in the same way they do as a new material in rehabilitation. But City officials like Murphy have chosen to ignore the Guidelines bar on asphalt shingle in new construction to cut costs for developers while they try to enforce it on rehabilitation.
Selective enforcement of guidelines
While developers of new construction are allowed to bypass the Guidelines the staff try to force private homeowners to use the more expensive materials like standing seam metal. This selective enforcement of the Guidelines against asphalt shingles has been the cause of great anger and expense to homeowners forced to battle to be treated on a par with developers’ new construction.
The October 23 meeting drew a phalanx of the Powers’ neighbors and they spoke in unison against Murphy – mostly to the effect that in a block with so much existing asphalt shingle roof one extra asphalt shingle would be perfectly compatible. It was unfair in a street of many asphalt shingle roofs to force homeowners to use a more expensive roof.
At this hearing the commissioners first rejected a motion from acting chair Robert Jones to allow asphalt shingle on the back and use standing seam metal on the front of the gable roof. Then Chase Tydings moved, and Tim Wesolek seconded, approval of the Powers plan on the basis that considering the amount of asphalt shingle on the street it would not compromise the streetscape or adversely affect surrounding historic properties. Rebecca Cybularz joined Tydings and Wesolek for a 3-2 victory over Robert Jones and Stephen Parnes who stuck with City staffer Murphy.
The Powers asphalt shingle roof is being installed this week (late April 2015.) See picture nearby.
FNP: Tydings, the alternate member since July 2013, says he wants to be the voice of the homeowners — the lenient voice, unafraid to divert from what the guidelines say, when possible.
“We are appointed to serve the citizens, and so we should give them a fair shake,” he said…
Tydings said he wanted to join the Commission because his own case for an addition had been denied, and he didn’t feel the hearing process was fair.
“I said I’ll try and go on and be a voice for the people — a voice for the frustration,” he said.
COMMENT: Tydings is a constructive voice on the Commission and his home-owner friendly approach works where the Guidelines are fuzzy and allow discretion, often written saying the issue should be adjudicated on a ‘case by case basis.’ In just as many cases however the Guidelines are quite clearcut, not being intended to allow discretion. Moreover the Introduction to the Guidelines states: “These guidelines are the basis of the review process and the foundation for decision-making by the Commission.” (last sentence p8)
The Tydings approach becomes problematic in this area of clear Guidelines, leading to the danger that rulings are completely unpredictable and opening the Commission up to legal challenge for arbitrary and capricious behavior. City staff are already in dangerous legal waters in treating sections of the Guidelines as unworkable. They regularly misrepresent the clear meaning of the Guidelines. There is much of this Made-Up Guidelines in their handling of new materials – asphalt shingle, fiber cement, aluminum clad windows, fiberglass, pressure treated wood etc.
Forcing homeowners to go back to more historic materials
Like Tydings, fellow commissioner Stephen Parnes has said at hearings that he doesn’t think it is reasonable to force a homeowner to go back to an earlier material when that material is much more expensive.
Trouble is the Guidelines often clearly require that. They do not require the Commission to ask whether the preservation benefits of demanding the more historically correct material or items justify the extra costs imposed on the property owner.
FNP: Scott Winnette, the commission’s chairman for three years now, said the 150-page guidelines document is specific for a reason, and doesn’t allow deviation most of the time.
The guidelines are a model across the nation, he said, and should be followed.
COMMENT: He’s right in saying the Guidelines don’t allow deviation much of the time. His second boosterish claim of Frederick being a model is ridiculous. Model historic preservation around the country focuses on landmark buildings and on districts comprising a block or two. No one else has designated ‘historic’ such a large slab of a city as Frederick. Even so some of Frederick’s best preservation has occurred outside the historic district (Shab Row and Everedy Square) and the City’s developer most attached to historic preservation (Burt Anderson) won’t take on projects under HPC jurisdiction. By depressing development and property values Frederick’s historic regulation reduces resources available for preservation and places major obstascles in its path. By any fairminded independent assessment the HPC is a net detriment to historic preservation.
FNP: Mayor Randy McClement said he believes it is good that not everyone thinks the same way on the board.
“We try to have the most well-rounded board as possible,” he said.
Minimizing the grey
It’s important that the preservation guidelines have as little gray area as possible, McClement said, but when there is a gray area, that is what the commission is for.
“They are really there to interpret those areas that may not be specifically black or white,” he said.
COMMENT: The Guidelines have way too much grey which makes it extremely difficult to know when buying a property what the Commission will allow and what it will bar. A central mechanism of HPC regulation – “contributing resource” status – blows clouds of grey over most projects. Plus the Guidelines black is sometimes interpreted by colorblind commissioners as white (when a No becomes politically unsustainable,) and white as black.
The mayor wants a “well rounded board,” a laudable sentiment but difficult to achieve when experience in historic preservation is a requirement for appointment. This almost ensures that the Commission will be on the zealous side.
FNP: Voting record: Reviewing commission votes from the last year, Tydings and Tim Wesolek were most likely to be a dissenting vote when a commissioner made a motion to deny or change a homeowner’s request.
Tydings (he is an Alternate or fill-in member of the HPC – P Sam) voted at 14 of 22 meetings since last March because of commission vacancies or absent members. In the 95 votes he cast, he dissented from the majority opinion seven times.
Wesolek was also a dissenting opinion for seven votes in the last year. McClement chose not to reappoint him to the commission in March, leaving Tydings wondering what that means for the commission. McClement appointed Dan Lawton to fill his term.
Commission member Michael Simons was most likely to dissent when the commission was approving a homeowner’s request, 10 times in the last year.
City data show that nearly all cases are approved, eventually.
COMMENT: This is misleading because the HPC’s veto power over projects allows the Commission to force them to be changed in scope and detail after conversations with City staff or Commission ‘workshops’ long before the formal hearing and the final vote. HPC13-229, my own case for example, began as an approximate 400 square foot extension to a third floor apartment but through workshops and redesigns it was reduced to a 112sf project. What was “eventually approved” was radically different from what started out.
FNP: Tydings said he agrees with how strict the guidelines are and how strict staff’s interpretation is, but there should at least be a few members who are willing to deviate.
“If you have a stacked board with rigid guidelines, it makes for a waste of (expletive) time,” he said.
Winnette also said having a diverse set of commissioners is a good thing.
“I think (Tydings) has a very important voice on the commission,” he said.
COMMENT: Tydings agreement with the existing Guidelines undermines the claim that the Commission is not particularly diverse in its views. Tydings is the commissioner who most regularly dissents and sides with citizens appearing before the HPC, yet he sees little fault in the Guidelines, guidelines which:
- are so vague they lead to inconsistent and arbitrary rulings
- are riddled with ambiguity
- interfere in the tiniest trivial details of projects
- apply the same rules to quite dissimilar buildings
- make little distinction between the public domain of the streetscape and the private domain of backyards
- cover far too wide an area of the downtown making no distinction between what is really precious historically and scrappy areas
- depreciate land values through putting a pall of uncertainty over what preseravtion, rehabilitation and new construction will be permitted
- are quite at odds with the history of downtown Frederick which is attractive for its quirky variations, incompatible land uses, and organic unplanned origins
- treats adult citizens like children who are just dying to use a wrecking ball on their property
- editor 2015-04-30
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