Mayor McClement gives over part of Tuesday afternoon to meetings with citizens on anything they’d like to speak to. I was number 3 this Tuesday in the spacious mayoral office in the northeast corner of City Hall. I took no notes with me but what follows is what I said or intended to say:
Mr Mayor: The historic preservation process is far and away the most aggravating aspect of City government, especially for those of us who live in the historic district, but it threatens to spread that aggravation citywide (via the demolition review ordinance.) It is a specially major burden for lower income people and drives away
I’d strongly urge you to initiate a wide-ranging review by an independent reviewer or three person review panel, which would call for submissions, hold hearings, and report recommendations to the Mayor and Board. Importantly the enthusiasts for historic preservation should be excluded from the panel since their influence has produce the over-detailed, draconian and unfair system we currently suffer under in the historic district.
First we need a serious rewrite of the Design Guidelines. At 48,000 words and 160 pages they are way too long, too confused, too intrusive, and need simplification and clarification. Many provisions have little to do with preservation and represent an unwarranted imposition of planners’ personal aesthetic preferences. Much of Frederick’s charm lies in its quirky diversity which derives from the fact that historically people were allowed to express themselves in their buildings. Downtown Frederick would be a very dull place if building had been subject to HPC regulations.
2. In some cases the Guidelines are simply being disregarded – by tacit agreement between the planning staff and the historic commission. Examples are asphalt shingle roofing, fiber-cement siding, and use of pressure treated lumber. If the Guidelines don’t make sense, and are being disregarded, then they should be rewritten for accuracy if nothing else. In the case of asphalt shingle roofing a serious injustice is being done to residents being asked by the HPC to upgrade to standing seam metal, while developers are being approved for asphalt shingle roofing.
The Design Guidelines should be revised to eliminate injustices like this, to reduce unnecessary and petty interference in details, to reflect actual practice accurately, and to make other changes as decided in a review process. At 160 pages Frederick’s historic preservation guidelines are way longer than most, and the aim should be to reduce them to 40 pages max.
3. The responsibility of the Historic Commission to review changes should be focussed on the streetfronts of buildings, where they constitute the public realm and give the city character. The Land Management Ordinance should be amended to make clear that the backs of buildings and anything outside the streetscape is generally private and exempt from historic preservation review and rulings. An exception would be buildings specially landmarked as of outstanding historical importance and preserved in their original historic form – Schifferstadts and Barbara Fritchie type buildings.
4. The review panel should look at the structure of the historic district as a large single district. Historic preservation is most successfully achieved in compact districts of a few blocks each where the buildings and the owners have more in common and are more likely to work cooperatively on preservation. Forcing a one-size-fits-all set of guidelines on a huge swathe of the city, some 50 blocks, covering a great diversity of housing and capacity-to-pay makes fair, coherent regulation of preservation extremely difficult.
5. The review panel should consider ways to make the historic preservation process more cost-efficient and less onerous to property owners. The HPC should be required under new rules of procedure to desist from its odious practice of cutting off applicants when they speak to the extra costs they are being asked to bear by the HPC. The HPC should be required by its rules of procedure to take testimony on the excess costs of its edicts and to consider explicitly whether the benefits by way of preservation merit the extra costs. It is too tempting for historic preservation enthusiasts of the commission to “save” and “preserve” other people’s properties on other people’s nickel.
6. The ‘demolition’ delay ordinance as advocated by city planning staff would turn the whole of the city into an historic district with heavy supervision of any additions to buildings over 50 years old. The hair trigger definition of ‘demolition’ in the Frederick code – removal of any external wall or partition, changes to the roof shape or just one quarter of the area of the building – would rope in for historic preservation review many hundreds of additions to buildings all around the city. The City staff push for control over ’site’ as well as ‘structure’ adds a whole new level of uncertainty about the value of fringe city farms for development. And it makes a mockery of the City’s Comprehensive Plan and the zoning inherent in that plan.
Better to work with owners on landmarking individual buildings through the normal processes and let those protect them from unwarranted demolition. (END pitch to the Mayor.)
The Mayor didn’t argue with any of the points made, saying he’d heard some of the points from others. One possible obstacle to change, he said, were conditions attached to state government preservation grants to the City. He said he has asked for a brief on that.
The Mayor said the Guidelines go back to 2009 and at five years old it makes sense for them to be reviewed to consider improvements. Our guess is a review would likely not proceed without the support of the Board of Aldermen.
- editor 2014-08-27
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