2014, November 17 | Monday 10:10 pm

by Peter Samuel

The Frederick Police Department is in trouble with the City’s Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) for installing unapproved faux wrought iron fencing. Thursday night (11/13) at the Commission’s November hearing City ParkSn275-1969police were reprimanded for failing to file for HPC clearance on the fencing, a $4,342 job that gates-off the western end of Mullinix Alley at South Bentz Street.

After a long emotional hearing the Commission voted 3 to 2 against approval. That leaves the Police Department with a City violation!

Police Department representatives bluntly told the Commission they have no money in their budget to correct the violation. Donna Kuzemchak the Board KuzemchakLkgRtof Aldermen Liaison to the historic commission said police behavior in bypassing the Commission was unacceptable.

She told us some City departments don’t take seriously the rule that City projects need historic preservation vetting just like those of private citizens.

Kuzemchak met with the Mayor Friday in followup. She said Mr McClement was talking with City staff about the situation.

Police at the hearing said their failure to seek HPC approval before construction was a simple oversight. Several commissioners however maintained that the failure to file for approval was deliberate, and took the action as a calculated snub.

Alderman Kuzemchak told us Friday that the fence was run by by the local Neighborhood Advisory Council and gained local support. Also she says the gates or fencing project was approved by the Streets and Sanitation GatesExSBentz1971Committee before contracts were signed.

But she said historic preservation approval was City law and if the cops’ violation is not remedied then “the fence will have to come down.”

At issue

As heard Case HPC14-765 was an application by Cpl Charles Snyder of the City Police for post-construction approval for the 20 feet of fencing (mostly gates) used to close off the 10ft graveled public alley where it runs between 32 and 34 South Bentz Street townhouses.

Plus some new lights. The lights are not an issue for the HPC.

ThruTheGates1976The fencing and gates have been in place some months so the Police are seeking so-called “post-construction approval.”

Police also failed to follow HPC rules that a Notice of Public Hearing must be posted at the site of the work.

The staff report by historic planner Lisa Murphy and signed by manager of planning Matthew Davis recommended denial of approval. The staff argument was that the faux aluminum style of fencing must match the appearance of traditional wrought iron with welded or internal connections. The fence as installed to police department specifications is slightly different. Instead of faux welds where rails meet posts it shows a sleeve attachment. And instead of the pickets being faux-welded to the rails, the rails are slotted to allow the pickets to pass through them and rivets hold them in place.

The Guidelines under G. Fences, Gates and Walls, 3. Historic Precedence for fences, gates and walls p122 say: “New fences and walls must resemble those that were built historically in the district and must be built of the same materials.” This seems to us to say that a fence mimicking old wrought iron must be wrought iron, not aluminum. However as on so many issues the PlanGuidelines contain fudge clauses or contradictory provisions that are interpreted to allow for a modern substitute.

Under 6. Appropriate materials p123 they say: “The following materials are permitted for fencing in the Historic District: wrought or cast iron, aluminum, steel, wood boards (minimum width 4”), wood pickets and wire (including woven wire.)

There’s a paragraph on wrought iron fencing and materials that mimic it at E. p125: “Iron fences are the most ornate fences in the Historic District, although simple versions of the fence also exist. The installation of fences of alternative materials that mimic wrought or cast iron fencing will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.”

The staff report on the Mullinix Park case says: “ In the past staff has (sic) recommended and the Commission has required similar styled metal fencing to have internal; or welded connections to more closely replicate the appearance of traditional wrought iron.” HPC07-452 at 35E All Saints Street was cited as an example. The report concluded: “Staff recommends (sic) the Commission deny the request to install aluminum fencing and gates because the style does not mimic wrought iron fencing as closely as possible.”

(NOTE: It is basic english grammar to use the plural verb form “recommend” after a plural subject ‘staff.’ But then the Commission’s Design Guidelines themselves misapply ‘Affect…’ the verb in the heading D. p134 when they mean the noun ‘Effect on…’)

Crime prevention measure

Police Corporal Charles Snyder said the fencing was installed to thwart crimes being committed in Mullinix Park. The pedestrian way being closed was “heavily used by undesirables” who loitered in the Park Pavilion and engaged in alcohol consumption and drug dealing, he said. The gates were funded by a state grant for crime prevention.

Pavilion1982A police official who did not identify himself said the gates were “in keeping with the historic area of the City” and that short of very close inspection nobody would notice the difference from the HPC favored fencing style.

HPC chairman Scott Winnette agreed with the police on that point. He said after a recent walk around the historic district checking metal fences he found several made to the same specifications as the police fencing on Mullinix Alley. A particularly prominent example he cited is the Green Turtle restaurant near South Market and the Canal. Moreover, Winnette said that while the Mullinix Park fencing “is not the closest possible (to a real wrought iron fence,) I think it is close enough.”

Other commissioners were too focussed on what they saw as the Police Department’s disdain for the historic commission they hardly discussed the merits of the case.

Commissioner Timothy Wesolek asked: “How does this project get all the way through all the different city departments and nobody says ‘Excuse me you WesolekLkgLefthave to go to the HPC first?’… the frustration of this is that the City didn’t say: ‘You have to come here.’ That is very upsetting to me. It is upsetting when this is done outside the (City) system. This was done inside the system. Somebody screwed up, and that is the only way I can say it.”

Parnes says “deliberate” evasion

Commissioner Stephen Parnes said he had seen the Police-installed fencing in question, and had no problem with it, but he continued:

“When the City of Frederick does not even meet its own Guidelines I think it’s appalling, absolutely appalling, and insensitive and… reprehensible frankly. Somebody in the City knew what was happening, knew they were supposed to get the approval and chose to not to do so. somebody knew they were avoiding the Guidelines, avoiding this Commission, avoiding the historic preservation planners, and chose to do it. And I have no qualms in saying that. Somebody knew what they were doing and chose to avoid meeting the obligations they had on behalf of the City of Frederick and its residents and its citizens.”

ParnesBest3The City’s Counsel to the Commission Scott Wexler said the Commission should deal with the case on its merits like any other case. Chairman Winnette agreed saying the failure of the Police Department to follow the rules should be dealt with separately via Aldermanic Liaison Donna Kuzemchak. Plus he offered to draft a letter to the Mayor expressing the Commission’s concern about the Police action.

But Parnes thought a more forceful response was needed:

“If we deny this then it is sending a statement to the City of Frederick that we did not approve this, that it does not meet the standards of our Guidelines… something rather than saying Yes. I agree that we probably need it, to send a statement to the City of Frederick that certain standards need to be followed.”

Wesolek moved to approve the light fixtures as recommended in the staff report.

The vote in favor was unanimous.

But there were long silences before anyone moved a motion on the fencing.

Eventually Commissioner Robert Jones moved to “deny the request to install aluminum fencing and gates because the style does not mimic wrought iron fencing as closely as possible.” That was seconded by Wesolek.

The vote was Jones, Wesolek and Parnes in favor of denial, Winnette and Cybularz against.

COMMENT: It is probably wrong that there was a conscious and deliberate decision by city police to bypass the Commission as charged by Commissioner Stephen Parnes. More likely it was simply an oversight, although perhaps Parnes knows more than he is saying. There are City officials who share the common view among private residents of Frederick that the Commission is an absurdity and a nuisance, and would delight in avoiding its tedious meddlings.

On the merits of the case City staff (Murphy and Davis) again demonstrated their extremism in calling for denial. HPC Chairman Scott Winnette is about as committed a historic preservationist as you get.ApprovedFence1983

When you lose Winnette, you demonstrate you are way out there beyond reason.

But then the Guidelines contain so many contradictory provisions almost anything goes.

Consider: “Additions to historic buildings must incorporate materials that are compatible with the age and style of the historic building.” (p135) That, on its face, outlaws the use of aluminum, an exclusely 20th century metal, next to Frederick’s many 19th century buildings. And the Police fence is set in an alley between two 19th century townhouses.

And the Guidelines generally reflect historic preservations’ disdain for faux or fake materials, for example in their insistence on single pane wood windows and their bar on use of composite or engineered lumber.

Aluminum windows are rigidly barred in the historic district in favor of wood even though to detect they are not wood you need to tap them. Otherwise you can’t tell the difference.

Nonapproved1979Faux-wrought iron aluminum fencing is all over the historic district. So is fiber-cement in place of wood siding. Cellular PVC (brand Azek) is now being accepted by the HPC in spite of the Guidelines, as are asphalt shingles in new construction, and pressure treated lumber for fences.

Police say they’re broke

With private citizens the Commission has often refused to accept an argument that their preferred product was too expensive. Now they are told by a City agency there’s no money in the budget for the HPC-recommended fencing.

Poetic justice?

- editor 2014-11-16


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