A Fine Line

Is Frederick's Historic Preservation Commission Too Weak, Too Tough or Just Right?

By Allison Hurwitz | Photography by Turner Photography Studio | Posted on 06.19.17 – Feature, Lifestyles

For want of a new air conditioner, James Callear found himself in hot water.

A year ago, Callear attempted to install a new HVAC system in the home he had purchased on West Third Street. An investment property, the building had previously been divided into apartments and Callear was restoring it to its original, single-family use. Among needed renovations was the installation of a new natural gas line to fuel the modern HVAC unit.

Having invested in multiple properties in Downtown Frederick’s Historic District over the years, Callear was familiar with the city’s Historic Preservation Commission and its guidelines that dictate what owners can and cannot do to their properties. But since these rules pertain almost exclusively to the integrity and aesthetics of a building’s facade, he wasn’t expecting his new gas line to be a problem. He was wrong.

Callear’s new gas service required a new meter and Washington Gas placed it on the sidewalk in front of the house. But the highly visible location prompted a neighbor to file a complaint and the HPC issued Callear a notice of a violation.

The commission, a six-member panel of volunteers charged with maintaining the historic character of the city, argued that there had to be a better, less-obtrusive location for the meter. According to letters Callear acquired from Washington Gas, however, the meter had been placed in the only viable spot. Callear felt stuck between his utility company and his city.

Callear’s gas meter saga would take months to resolve, requiring two hearings before the commission and a walkthrough of his property with a commission member and representatives from Washington Gas. Eventually, a compromise was reached that moved the meter to a less-visible location closer to the home’s front stoop while conveniently keeping it in front of the house.

Cases like Callear’s have given the HPC a reputation for zealously applying rigid standards, even when the quest to preserve historical integrity conflicts with modern necessity. Some residents and developers like to say HPC stands for “Hysteric Preservation Commission,” and its members are aware of the criticism.

“I think … the HPC has been given a bad rap and some of it is probably within reason,” says Scott Winnette, commission chairman. “I didn’t get onto it expecting to be the favorite of the city, but I do think there are conversations that can be happening between the mayor and the board that would increase the city’s and the people’s knowledge of what’s happening Downtown.”

“Our commission­ has no teeth”

That need for greater communication can be seen at the now-vacant lots that break the streetscape of South Market Street. After a contentious, years-long process, the free-standing facades that once stood at 56-70 S. Market St. came tumbling down in March.

The property had contained a mostly intact three-story building and two faux facades. A vacant eyesore and potential safety hazard since the Downtown flood of 1976, the property was purchased by developer Suitland Road LLC in 2011.

Suitland Road proposed the removal and replacement of the structures in January, but were denied by the Historic Preservation Commission. From the commission’s standpoint, the decision was clear: its guidelines do not allow a building to be razed just because it has fallen into disrepair. It was surprising, then, when just a short time later Mayor Randy McClement called for the developers to take the structures down.

While it doesn’t happen often, the mayor and Board of Aldermen can overrule the decisions of the historic commission if a law or building code has been violated. “We have various bodies in the city that may have differing opinions from each other, and that’s because their task is different,” explains Donna Kuzemchak, alderwoman and liaison to the commission. “For instance, the Planning Commission, their job is to make an overall decision on a planning matter. The Historic Preservation Commission’s job is to protect the historic fabric of the city. They can at times have differing opinions because they have different direction.”

The 56-70 S. Market St. incident wasn’t officially cited as the catalyst, but the commission has requested to meet with city officials to improve intergovernmental communication. “We have never met with Code Enforcement, for example, and they play a key role,” says commissioner Stephen Parnes, who initiated the request for the meeting. “I think as we move forward we need to be on the same page, as there are sometimes actions that are taken by the city staff that we’re not privy to or involved in the decision making. We have to have much more dialogue, especially in a city of this size.”

McClement admits the situation could have been handled better, as the commission was never formally informed the South Market Street buildings would be torn down. “That might have been a faux pas on my part,” he says. “I just made some assumptions that somebody would let them know. That probably also was a little concerning to them and another reason they got upset and wanted to meet and talk.”

Winnette says while he would’ve appreciated a heads-up about the demolition, “I haven’t and won’t criticize [the mayor] for doing what he needed to do within his role, and he hasn’t criticized us for what we had to do in our role. It just so happens that they didn’t line up this time.”

Atakan Yilmaz, of neighboring Capa Home Decor has had a vested interest in the fate of the South Market Street buildings since his store opened in 1994. Yilmaz says business has suffered over the years as a consequence of the vacancy produced by the dilapidated facades. “The city spent all of that money on Carroll Creek [Linear Park],” he says, “but no one comes to this side of the creek. Customers are scared because this part of the street doesn’t look safe.”

Some wonder why the city allowed the structures to deteriorate in the first place. “What’s sad is there are so many older buildings that are literally falling apart and we saw that with 56 S. Market St.,” says community activist Truby LaGarde. “It’s gotten to the point where it’s become a danger to the community. … City Hall should have done something a long time ago.”

Although the historic commission is tasked with evaluating architectural concerns in the Historic District, it has no power to prevent the decline of blighted buildings, which falls solely under the purview of the city’s Code Enforcement office. This has been a concern for Winnette. “I’ve suggested in the past that there are some ways to add a little more teeth to demolition-by-neglect rules,” he says. “They’re in our guidelines, but our commission has no teeth. We don’t have any enforcement abilities.”

“Shouldn’t be so hardcore”

Yilmaz is relieved that the South Market Street buildings are finally down, but he remains frustrated with the historic commission regarding an issue with his own building. He spent six months searching for the historically correct type of brick mandated for a repair, all the while fearing the derelict facades next door could fall down in a strong wind.

The commission “shouldn’t be so hardcore about it,” he says. “If someone’s going to spend $2 million bringing their business here, the city should help them out.” It could do this, he says, by loosening the reins on plans for development, reducing requirements for rehabilitations and helping to pay for costly mandated improvements.

So far there is no such aid available in Frederick, except for a tax-rebate program. Winnette has spoken with city staff about the possibility of implementing a program that offers monetary help, as is done in other cities. “They’re able to get state dollars, maybe some local dollars, to assist the people who don’t have the finances but have the home and are needing to keep that home up,” he says.

The financial aspect of adhering to historic guidelines is often cited as a complaint from residents. The commission dictates the specific materials and sometimes methods that a property owner may use. Generally these materials are as close to the original as possible, which means that more cost-efficient modern materials are often unacceptable. And finding a craftsman to do the work can be pricey and time-consuming.

One homeowner, who did not want to be named, shared his experience building a deck in the yard of his historic row house. He planned to build the deck out of pine, as his home had original pine wood floors and it’s a native species. However, he was ordered to use birch or teak for their aesthetic value, despite the fact that those woods were not typically used in the area and are not grown locally.

The approval process for his deck took longer than three months and required him to take off work numerous times to meet with the commission. “All interaction with the HPC is at their pleasure, without respect to homeowners schedules,” he says. “Many homeowners do things under the table since it’s easier to plead forgiveness than ask permission. This dynamic undercuts the goal of preserving historic properties.”

Commissioner Parnes says public criticism is part of the reason he asked to meet with city officials. “I was feeling at times demoralized and ineffectual and occasionally being criticized by neighbors and I don’t want to be in that position. I’m doing what I was asked to do. I’m a resident of the Historic District, I go through the same issues as they do,” he says.

He hopes to dispel the idea that the commission is a nuisance. “The commission is often on the chopping block as far as residents are concerned, and we receive a lot of criticism, yet we are brought on simply to interpret the guidelines,” he says. “It’s like blaming a judge for a law that’s in place when a judge is simply interpreting what is there in terms of legislation.”

He adds, “As hard as it can be, as tedious as it can be, walking out and sometimes feeling like I’ve just walked out of a battle, I look around the Historic District and that to me is the biggest reward, seeing what has been done over time, what we are doing to improve the city, to maintain its historic nature. It’s really rewarding to see what can be done despite the struggle that we all face in these cases sometimes. In the end, hopefully we’re all pretty happy with the outcome.”

“Their investment is improved”

Despite the ordeal to have his gas meter approved, Callear appreciates the role of the historic commission. “I’m a Frederick walking tour guide and I love the Historic District,” he says. “I’ve seen too many buildings be destroyed over the years. I truly believe in what the HPC is doing.”

Callear’s sentiment is shared by Sue Murphy, who has renovated and sold homes in Downtown Frederick since 1991. Her family-owned company, Murphy Properties, does business in the area in large part because of the stability the commission provides in maintaining property value. “We are unique and wonderful here and [the HPC] gets to carry a lot of credit for that because of what they produce in terms of true preservation and true charm,” says Murphy. “I like to invest in Downtown because it’s a secure investment. It is a unique and wonderful city compared to so many that don’t have that type of governance.”

The Murphys make a point to work collaboratively with the commission, often seeking opinions on projects before fully forming their own plans. “You kinda go into it with your eyes open,” Murphy says. “When you buy in the Historic District you are obliged to uphold their guidelines, so educate yourself before making that decision, or certainly before you start making dreams about what you want to do.”

Many in the city believe conforming to commission guidelines is a small price to pay to live in such a well-maintained area. “Look at the Historic District as being a strengthening of your property value, not a horrible thing to have to deal with,” says activist LaGarde, a member of Neighborhood Advisory Council 11, which includes Downtown. “Honestly, the last few years I’ve seen more folks move into NAC 11 and feel that their investment is improved by being in the Historic District.

She adds, “When people complain about having to jump the hoops, I try to remind them about what the Historic Preservation Commission does for us. It is a commission that is staffed by volunteers who spend an inordinate amount of time and energy and have guidelines to follow that are very obvious and concrete.”