Nancy Lavin of the Frederick News-Post asked me a question Tuesday: What is the single most important thing we need to do to reform Frederick’s historic preservation regulation?
I bungled the answer, suggesting several reforms – provision for a mayor & board override of decisions by the unelected historic geeks perhaps, or a thoroughgoing review of the historic district Guidelines by a mixed panel of preservationists and commonsense folk (yes they are two quite distinct categories), a rethink of areas covered by historic preservation regulation…
Over the next 24 hours my mind kept coming back to Lavin’s question: what single measure would help improve the historic preservation process. Then it stuck me. What are the extremist preservationists most sensitive about – COST. They are most uncomfortable about the extra cost they are imposing on citizens in following their dictats.
So sensitive are they about cost they try to suppress discussion.
Until the summer of 2014 it was routine practice at HPC hearings for staff or commissioners to rudely interrupt an applicant wishing to point out the cost of being required to use, say, standing seam metal rather than asphalt shingle, or half-round rather than K-profile guttering.
The Rule-of-the-Scotts it was, the interruption usually being made by either Scott Winnette HPC chairman or Scott Waxter staff attorney to the Commission.
In their interruption of the citizen at the podium one Scott or the other would routinely claim: “The Commission is not allowed to hear testimony on the costs…”
Which was baloney. A fabrication.
Nothing in the historic district guidelines, the rules of procedure & regulations of the HPC, or the land management code forbad discussion of cost. The City’s legal staff could cite nothing by way of such a prohibition – because it doesn’t exist. Timid applicants before the Commission never called their bluff, so the Historic Preservation Commission got away with censorship and abridgment of citizens’ rights for years.
Thankfully that came to an end about July of last year following a behind-the-scenes intervention of Alderman Donna Kuzemchak, aldermanic liaison to the HPC. Apparently she told them very firmly they must cease the falsehoods about the rules and allow citizens to say their piece on costs if they chose.
It took an elected official to put the censors in their place.
We wrote about some of the Scotts misrepresentation of the rules here:
Why did the two Scotts behave with such imperiousness?
Because discussion of costs made them very uncomfortable. HPC people, staff and commissioners hate any discussion of cost because it’s their achilles heal. They try to avoid, like the plague, the issue of what their rulings cost citizens.
Which is wrong, wrong, wrong.
Unlike Williamsburg VA our Frederick MD is not underwritten by a billionaire whose hobby is the creation of a museum-style colonial village. The Frederick historic district has a wide cross section of incomes, some rich, some middling income and others poor. Financial resources are limited and money spent satisfying historic preservation regulators is money unavailable for other living costs.
An Imputed Historic Preservation ‘Tax’
So here’s the proposal. Let’s make cost to citizens and property owners of the historic preservation regulation explicit.
Call it the Imputed Historic Preservation Tax, the excess cost of complying with the HP Commission’s requirements over standard building practice.
The Guidelines should be amended to make the imputed historic preservation tax a central part of regulation. The Commission must be forced to consider the question: does the extra cost we’re imposing on the homeowner produce tangible historic preservation benefits, and are those benefits sufficient to justify their cost to citizens.
1. Applicants should be invited to discuss the costs of what they are being asked to do for historic preservation as compared to the costs of good building practice outside the Historic District, the difference being the Imputed Historic Preservation Tax
2. Staff reports should be required to note the extra costs claimed by applicants, comment if they disagree and lay out the benefits those costs will buy – a cost-benefit analysis.
That’s the single most important reform needed.
- editor 2015-08-20
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