Property owners learn to live up to historic preservation rules

April 16, 2005|by GREGORY T. SIMMONS

HAGERSTOWN - Although a set of historic preservation rules affecting hundreds of buildings in Hagerstown went into effect more than one year ago, it appears that many property owners still might not know the rules apply to them.

The city historic preservation commission - officially the City Preservation Design District Commission - regulates most changes to buildings in the city's historic districts. It has the authority to force changes or fine property owners who are out of compliance with city rules.

Even though new historic preservation rules took place in January 2003, Jane Domenici learned this past February she was out of compliance with city rules after performing $30,000 worth of work.


Domenici, 89, had installed nearly 60 new windows on two buildings on South Potomac Street. She said she had done the work because of a previous visit by a city code officer, who had recommended fixing the windows.

Domenici said she was told she could be fined $10,000 for disobeying the city's historic preservation rules, but "I didn't get any notification, any rule book or any pamphlets about them changing" the rules.

"I felt as if they were going to throw the book at me," Domenici said this week.

Domenici said she was pleased, however, with the commission's decision Thursday. The commission allowed Domenici to keep the 59 nonconforming windows she had installed and only required her to install two windows that conform to historic standards.

Another case heard on Thursday was of a Potomac Avenue property. The owner had installed about 30 new windows that didn't conform to historic guidelines.

In that case, the property owner told the historic preservation commission she had been misled by the Realtor, who indicated to her she would not face historic preservation rules when she bought the house.

That fact caught the attention of several commission members.

"I would not want to see this happen again. The applicant was grossly misled," Commissioner David Pembroke said during the meeting.

Pembroke later asked city officials to write a letter to the Realtor and local realty agencies explaining the city's rules to let them know "they need to be on notice."

In a third case on Thursday involving The Bowman Group's redevelopment project on South Potomac Street, the commission ruled against the property owner.

Bowman's building at 34-36 S. Potomac St. is being refurbished, and workers had replaced aging windows with new ones. However, Bowman representatives told the commission that they mistakenly performed the work.

While the Bowman representatives asked for a waiver, the commission denied the request.

City Zoning Administrator Stephen Bockmiller said that decision means Bowman will be required to replace the 10 windows they replaced with ones that meet historic standards.

Bockmiller said the historic rules have existed in the city for more than 20 years, but last year's rule changes broadened the authority of the city's historic preservation commission.

Before January 2004, the commission's work was tied only to building permits issued for properties in the historic districts. Since then, the commission has authority to oversee most work done to the exterior of a historic property, including window treatments and siding, even though that work does not require a building permit.

That authority is important, Bockmiller said, because it helps to preserve the city's historic resources and can add property value as well as be a tourist attraction.

Bockmiller said while there were efforts to explain last year's changes through the local press, cable television and the city's cable channel, he said more efforts could be made. One possibility that is in development is a direct mailing to the historic district property owners.

Robert Hershey, historic preservation commission chairman, after hearing the cases on Thursday, called for a speedy effort to make sure everyone knows the rules they can face.

"There has got to be an information-sharing session with the public," Hershey said.

In Domenici's case, Hershey said, "She was acting in good faith, but the problem is that the information that she should have had ... was not out there."

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