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Walker House project can proceed

January 09, 2009|By DAN DEARTH

HAGERSTOWN -- After threatening to withhold occupancy and other permits over an issue of replacement windows, Hagerstown city officials have decided to allow a developer to proceed with construction at the Walker House at 34-36 S. Potomac St.

Mayor Robert E. Bruchey II said Thursday that the city decided to issue permits to The Bowman Development Group, a Williamsport-based company that is renovating the Walker House for use as apartments and office space.

The permits were being withheld because Bowman Development installed in the facade of the house 10 aluminum-grilled, energy-efficient windows that had not been approved by the city's Historic District Commission, an organization that was formed in 1987 by then-Mayor Steven Sager and the City Council to protect, preserve and encourage the reuse of historic sites.

Historic District Commission officials said the aluminum-grilled windows that Bowman Development installed in the Walker House, which was built around 1865, did not maintain the historic integrity of the building.

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"(The city) is looking at the process as a whole," Bruchey said. "We will not hold up use and occupancy permits."

According to city documents, the main responsibility of the Historic District Commission "is to review and act upon applications to alter the exterior of properties in the historic districts, to demolish properties in the historic districts, and/or to build new structures or buildings in the historic districts. As prescribed by state law, appeals of the HDC's decisions are made to (Washington County) Circuit Court."

Bruchey and the City Council are to discuss the Historic District Commission's authority during a work session Tuesday at City Hall.

City Development Review Planner Stephen R. Bockmiller said last week that the City Council did not have the authority to overturn the commission's decisions. In a letter dated Dec. 10 to Bowman Development, Bockmiller said the Hagerstown Planning Department "will authorize no additional permits until this issue is resolved."

When asked Friday to comment about the city's recent change of heart, Bockmiller referred questions to City Planning Director Kathleen Maher.

Maher did not respond to a message seeking comment Friday afternoon.

The mayor said he didn't know whether Bowman Development would have the incentive to replace the windows now that the permits would be issued.

"That's not my intention," Bruchey said. "My intention is to put businesses in buildings downtown."

Donald M. Bowman, a partner with The Bowman Development Group, was in Florida, but he said last month that he intended to sue the city so construction could resume at the Walker House.

Bowman said he spent millions of dollars on the project - including about $44,000 on the windows - and created dozens of jobs in the process. Construction shouldn't be stopped, he said, because of 10 energy-efficient windows that would save money in the long run.

Bowman said he thought he had the approval to install the windows about five years ago and went ahead with construction. It wasn't until later, after the windows had been installed, that he was told the permits would not be issued, he said.

In an apparent attempt to gain public support on the issue, Bowman placed two notes in one of the windows. The first note said:

These are the windows in dispute.

They are energy efficient and low maintenance.

These are the exact wooden frames that were here from the start.

The windows and sashes are new, energy-efficient windows.

Are they improper to the character of the existing building?

The sign gives the contact information for the Hagerstown Planning Department.

The following information was listed on the second note:

There have been no state or federal loans or historic tax credits used on this project.

The signs remained in place Friday.

Irvin P. Gish, director of special projects for Bowman Development, said representatives from the company went to a meeting of the Historic District Commission in 2004 with a model of one of the windows to show officials what Bowman planned to install. After hearing nothing to the contrary, Bowman Development assumed the windows were acceptable and proceeded with their installation, he said.

"We did ask for permission," Gish said. "The original submission had (the windows) on the whole building. We wouldn't have put them in if we didn't have permission."

The minutes from the Historic District Commission's meetings at which the Walker House was discussed in 2004 mention nothing of Bowman Development showing a sample window for the Walker House.

The minutes state that windows were approved for the rear and north side of the building - but do not mention the front.

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