Following is an important editorial on the Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) in the Frederick News-Post today (our sub-heads,) followed by a comment by Scott Winnette, HPC Chair, and a comment we submitted:
The Frederick Historic Preservation Commission’s micromanagement has driven up costs for those who have come before it with their overly demanding, overly arbitrary, overly burdensome standards, and now it’s managed to drive away one developer who had hoped to revitalize a key downtown property after years of disuse.
Has HPC “had its day”?
Having done so, we’re left wondering if this isn’t one city commission that’s had its day.
As reporter Nancy Lavin detailed with two front-page stories on Friday, two developers planning projects for two downtown Frederick properties felt the HPC’s sting at Thursday night’s hearing.
Anyone who’s walked passed the ugly facades lining 58-70 S. Market St., close by upscale Carroll Creek, may have wondered what’s up with the boarded up windows and doors, which make the recumbent L shape of the whole thing look like it came straight out of an impoverished inner city neighborhood. Plans for the blight-listed property have waxed and waned over the past decade and a half, but the good news was it seemed the owner was finally set on renovation.
OK to demolish, then not OK
That was until architect Ron Johnston came before the Historic Preservation Commission on Thursday requesting it renew permission to knock down the facades. No problem, you’d think. After all, the commission had already approved the demolition back in 2012. It should only be a formality to renew that permission and help get the plans for office, commercial and apartment space on the move again. This is just the kind of attractive project needed in an attractive area close by the creek, one that’s lain fallow for 16 years. Instead, the HPC approved the demolition of only one facade, deciding the other had somehow become in the intervening three years a “contributing resource” to the historic nature of downtown Frederick. All that apparently has changed is the HPC’s membership. So much for consistency.
Uncertainty and confusion
The result was that the HPC has once again injected uncertainty and confusion into a project that had clear plans, even if the execution of those plans has been delayed. So much so, it seems, that on Friday, the property’s owner announced he’d called it quits. The developer was ready to get going and, in two years, the city could have this attractive property back on the tax rolls, generating some much-needed income. We can kiss that goodbye.
“I don’t have the time and the energy,” owner Tarek Aly told Lavin. “We’re going to invest somewhere else.”
Not content with undermining one project, the HPC whetted it’s abstruse hair splitting on another renovator earlier in the evening, forcing him too to reconsider dealing with the city. You’d think, those of us with any common sense, anyhow, that windows and doors wouldn’t necessarily cause too much hoopla, but you’d be underestimating the pedantic historical perfectionism required for membership on the preservation commission.
They voted unanimously at the same meeting as the one above to prevent the owners of an admittedly historic 1880s house at 109 W. South St. from replacing 17 windows and main entrance door. This, apparently, is the latest in an increasingly tense number of exchanges one of the owners, Garrett Adler, described to Lavin as “a definite nightmare.”
Historic or not, the property was listed as blighted before its September 2014 tax sale to Income One LCC for $37,000. As such, it came with a list of code violations, some of them safety issues. And while Adler was informed about those code violations, he wasn’t briefed adequately about the regulations governing historic renovations of the property.
Now, dealing with the HPC has become so difficult, Adler said, “Had I known what this would become, I might not have even started down this road. Even at this point, I’m considering just selling it.”
That someone could be saying this about a city government process is astounding to us. But we’ve heard this message from would-be developers time and time again about the preservation commission — and not just recently. This has been going on for decades.
47% say abolish HPC
We know it’s not scientific, but it’s indicative that among people who read this paper diligently that our informal online poll asking, “What do you think of Frederick’s Historic Preservation Commission?” showed 47 percent of those voting believe the commission has too much scrutiny and should be done away with. Thirty-two percent voted for “It depends on the case,” and only 21 percent believed the HPC was a valuable watchdog. The Historic Preservation Commission has a PR problem.
The city should be encouraging renovators and falling over backwards to provide customer support to speed these rehabilitations along. Instead, we have a hallmark case of government cutting off its nose to spite its face (or facade, if you’ll forgive the pun) with a body of people who sit on a dais, the elevation of which has apparently gone to their heads. Perhaps they should all resign and the city go back to the drawing board itself with a new, citizen-friendly commission.
HPC Chair Scott Winette commented
The FNP editorial today is calling for the resignation of the most professional HPC the City of Frederick has had in years. The current HPC complies with the statewide and local requirements for membership composition regarding professional credentials.
Education and experience in history and architectural history abound. Two architects, three architectural historians, an archaeologist plus heaps of demonstrated interest and regular training. And the current HPC is complemented by very competent and professional City staff.
FNP, your editorial staff need only look to the National Trust to recognize Frederick City’s historic preservation commission follows guidelines that comport with National and State standards of preservation. To characterize our local commission as extremists is patently wrong.
The window issue will not go away, but please note the National Preservation Standard preserves original windows and much study has gone into proving their capacity for energy efficiencies.
Shame on you FNP for seeking to incite anti-preservation. To what end, the dissolution of the Frederick City Historic District or its diminishment into a pretend historic city?
Your editorial is quite right. The Historic Preservation Commission has become a wretched and costly nuisance that hinders property owners wanting to improve their buildings. It is a major generator of blight, and a drag on preservation itself. Its decisions are arbitrary and capricious because it runs according to 160 pages of official Guidelines shot through with logical inconsistency and incoherence. And the Commission is allowed to operate without any requirement to consider costs and benefits. There are old buildings and sections of streets in the downtown where the streetscape deserves strict preservation. But that should be done collaboratively by those who live and own those buildings. And by ‘landmarking’ the gems of real historic importance. Instead we have the whole of the downtown, and increasingly properties outside the official historic district subjected to draconian regulation, so that in the most trivial details of our buildings we live like serfs beholden to the lords of the HPC.
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