In a review of historic preservation regulation the Frederick News Post’s Jen Fifield quotes Mayor Randy McClement as saying “it is time for another review of the guidelines, to see if there are areas for improvement and whether the rules can be made more clear and consistent.”
However Lisa Murphy senior staffer to the Historic Preservation Commission “thinks the process is working overall,” and says “she sees mostly happy customers, but it’s the unhappy ones who make the most noise.”
And they get the most attention.
Murphy has been at the center of some bitter confrontations with residents wanting to fix their roofs using existing materials – asphalt shingle – with Murphy claiming the historic Guidelines require they go back to standing seam metal as historically “more appropriate.” She claims the Guidelines are “contradictory” on the matter despite the fact they say (p61) asphalt shingles “can be used to replace existing asphalt… shingles.” Murphy advances an extremist city-museum agenda ignoring the explicit Guidelines OK to replacement in-kind by reference to another obscure provision p87 that doesn’t even mention asphalt shingles.
She gets cover for her aggressive stance by claiming her job as staff is to report “the strictest interpretation” of the Guidelines however contradictory or ambiguous they are. The Mayor by contrast has said the job of staff like Murphy is to present both sides of a case fully and fairly.
Historic preservation enthusiasts and city staff have collaborated over the years to insert more demanding provisions in the Guidelines. Also as the News Post report says “over the years the boundaries (of the historic district) were expanded.”
The News Post notes that many residents “turn a blind eye” to the historic preservation rules and “make repairs as they wish, often going unpunished.”
The report cites City data to the effect that the average HPC approval time has fallen from 22 days in 2010 to 15 days in 2015 (fiscal year data) and the percentage of cases approved by staff without going before the Commission has gone from 65.3% to 70.2%.
“Of 1,189 applications received and closed from July 2009 to June 2014, only 19 were completely denied, including four from July 2013 to June 2014, according to the database. Others were partially denied, but that information is not in the database.”
Then Fifield reports: “Murphy reviewed cases for the same five-year period and found that 39 had been either denied or partially denied.”
Commissioner Stephen Parnes is quoted: “Most people don’t realize that nearly all historic preservation cases are approved.”
Misrepresentation (our COMMENT)
Such numbers grossly understate the damage done by the historic preservation Guidelines and their implementation by extremist City staff and the HPC.
They take no account of:
- preservationist investors like Bert Anderson (Shab Row, Everedy Square, Monocacy Cannery) and Tricia Beisler (Coca Cola plant) who simply won’t buy any property within the historic district for development because of the HPC, “more hassle than its worth” they say so we lose their money and their talent
- the people with property in the district who give up any idea of rehabilitation because of the HPC’s obtuse rules and procedures and who don’t even submit plans
- people who have plans for rehabilitation projects and submit the plans to the HPC but who get the message from City staff their plans will be opposed so they drop them and the plans never get to a vote
- people who have plans for rehab of their property and submit them but are forced by the HPC to make huge compromises in those plans to get approval
Only a sucker for punishment will take a losing project all the way to the formal HPC vote of denial.
So what Murphy measures is not plans blocked by the HPC but the number of suckers-for-punishment in the historic district. (end editorial COMMENT)
Enforcement needs improvement
The City’s code enforcement director Dan Hoffman is reported saying he plans to have a historic code enforcement manager appointed to improve the efficiency with which they handle people dodging HPC review.
But he admits to mixed feelings towards those he threatens: “They are just trying to make their house better, but just didn’t go through the proper channels. If someone put a brand-new door on their house, you feel bad giving them a citation.”
Still, “preserving the historic nature of the city is important,” Hoffman thinks.
“We just have to get to where we are comfortable in saying we have the best process. … It will be more efficient once we get everything plugged together.”
The News Post report says property owners’ finances often don’t allow them to do the kind of rehab the HPC requires: “The commission doesn’t consider the economics of preservation cases.”
Blight not habitat thanks to HPC – Habitat for Humanity chief
Fifield’s report cites the experience of the charity Habitat for Humanity buying an old log cabin on 5th Street in 2005, hoping to turn it into affordable housing. HPC requirements for use of logs like the original logs made the project unaffordable to Habitat for Humanity, which has since tried to sell the property. However no one wants it, and it remains unoccupied, and has been placed on the City’s Blighted Properties list.
Ron Cramer executive director of Habitat for Humanity is reported saying that because of the impasse they plan to file an application with the City to demolish the log house, so they can sell the lot to someone suitable.
Cramer is quoted as saying that homeowners trying to upgrade their buildings in ‘uptown’ (the north of the historic district) are frustrated by the HPC. The historic preservation regulations are “hurting the area, more than helping,” Cramer told the News Post.
He thinks City officials need to go out and meet property owners and “listen to them about what their struggles are.”
Need for more accommodating policy for poorer north of district
Alan Wetzel of 7th Street and an owner of other properties nearby is quoted saying that the north part of the historic district needs more accommodating historic preservation policies than downtown where incomes are higher and which tourists visit.
Wetzel says HPC controls over the back portions of buildings is unwarranted. Many of the HPC requirements are beyond the means of people, Wetzel says, so properties fall into disrepair.
Former mayor says commonsense is outlawed at HPC
Former Mayor Jeff Holtzinger tells the News Post “commonsense has been outlawed” when it comes to administration of historic preservation in Frederick. The rules and procedures make restoration so difficult and expensive they encourage blight, he’s quoted.
Holtzinger was a hero of many locals back in 2008 when he intervened against the HPC to put an end to its effort to prosecute the VOLT restaurant. The HPC demanded VOLT get its approval for changes to painted signage in a glass window panel over the front door. Old deteriorating gold colored paint on the glass read “Professional Offices.” The restauranteur was just setting up the business in the long empty building.
Manager Hilda Staples had a contractor scrape off “Professional Offices” to allow the VOLT nameplate to be installed above the door.
The VOLT sign was in apparent compliance with the HPC Guidelines – much smaller than the allowable size for signs. (Our reading of the Guidelines – editor)
VOLT only offense was they hadn’t gone through the HPC process filing the 15 copies of a plan and fronting the Commission on the appointed Thursday night asking for the approval for the new sign.
In one of the high points of his term in office Mayor Holtzinger said enough was enough and stopped the HPC’s frivolous prosecution of VOLT.
City staff he said had better things to do with their time.