Historic district could expand

January 08, 2006

MARTINSBURG, W.VA. - Fresh from the near-miss of Boydville, Martinsburg officials will consider a proposal next week that could better secure more of the city's stock of downtown historic properties.

City Planning Director Mike Covell said Martinsburg's Historic Preservation Review Commission (HPRC) will discuss implementing a plan to expand the city's downtown historic overlay district when the group meets Monday for its next scheduled monthly meeting.

The move comes on the heels of a recent effort by a Virginia company to develop the city's vaunted Boydville property, but Covell said the effort to build new houses on the historic 13-acre property at South Queen Street was not the impetus for expanding the historic district commission's range.


"For a few years, there's been an occasionally expressed desire from HPRC, as well as by myself (to review expanding the district)," Covell said.

In the Boydville case, The Rector Companies, a Manassas, Va.-based development company, sought permission in September to build a village of town houses and condominiums around the perimeter of a four-acre protective easement that would have preserved the property's manor house and several outbuildings, as well as the wide, tree-lined entranceway.

The company's rezoning request was approved by the city's planning commission, but later was shot down by the City Council, paving the way for the developer to return with a residential subdivision project consistent with the location's present zoning. That proposal was abandoned following the last-minute three-way purchase of the site by the Berkeley County Farmland Protection Board for $2.25 million, one-third of which was raised by the city after council members agreed to dip into the city's mortgage revenue bond fund.

Berkeley County Historic Landmarks Commission Chairman Don C. Wood said the protracted issue over the property likely could have been prevented if Boydville had been contained in an expanded historic district and overseen by the review board.

"If (Boydville owner LaRue Frye) had gone to the review board, I think they would have said no," said Wood, who gave his blessing in September to the original clustered village project proposed by the developer. "If they would have said no, that would have killed it, in my opinion."

Making it look new

But Covell said the review board likely could not have stopped new construction on the site, noting instead that inclusion of the property in the historic district would have protected the site's existing buildings from demolition and forced new construction to be architecturally compatible.

"(The commission) wouldn't be able to make a change upon a development plan that would make that property perform outside of its zoning, but they would have been able to apply standards or details so that any new construction has a reasonable relation to the property," Covell said. "You could see the chance for the commission to move toward a requirement for a more comprehensive design and consistency with the sense of space to protect the main manor house."

Demolition of a building administered by the historic district commission requires public hearings and approval by that board, Covell said.

While new construction must look similar to historic buildings, standards set forth by the U.S. Secretary of the Interior require new construction to look new, Covell said.

"When new development occurs, (the standards) insist that the work is done so as not to try to fake historical authenticity," Covell said. "They don't want people to be deceived that new buildings aren't what they really are."

More than 2,000 properties

Created following the passage of the National Historic Preservation Act in 1966, historic district commissions are authorized to consider exterior improvements and proposals for additions to and demolitions of downtown properties.

More than 2,400 historic districts have been established in the United States, according to Eastern Michigan University professor emeritus Robert M. Ward and architect Norman Tyler, writing in the October 2005 edition of Planning, the magazine of the American Planning Association.

Established by city officials in 1982, following its designation as a Historic Resource District by the National Register and U.S. Department of the Interior, Martinsburg's historic district review commission administers more than nine contiguous districts encompassing more than 2,000 properties, said Wood, who serves on the city's historic review board and also presides over the county's historical society.

The historic review commission does not consider interior improvements to properties, allowing property owners free rein over a building's insides, said Covell, who called the commission's work a zoning tool that provides a "supplemental review" over properties.

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