Preserving downtown historic districts a worthwhile, yet time-consuming process
By By Wiley Hayes and Times Staff Writer
Oct 05, 2014 at 3:54 AM
When Paul Mueller, a custom home builder and developer, decided to add to and renovate a historic building in Sykesville at the start of 2013, he knew it could be a lengthy process. A year and a half later, he is still working on gaining final approval and permits from multiple agencies, he said.
"We've dealt with the Sykesville Planning and Zoning Commission, the Carroll County Bureau of Development Review and associated county agencies, the Town of Sykesville's private engineer, the State Highway Administration, and the town's Historic District Commission informally," Mueller said. "Formal presentation would not occur until we fully develop our architectural drawings."
He said he estimates it will take another six months to gain final permits and approvals.
"Everybody I interplay with, they are all great people, they all want to work to do the right thing," Mueller said. "There are no obstructions; it's just [that it] takes time."
For the municipalities that deal with more frequent development, the consensus from representatives is that the preservation of existing historic buildings and maintaining the archaeological qualities of the town are a high priority. After all, they are a literal representation of our past.
However, the renovation of an existing historic property, a type of infill development, in most cases means the involvement of additional agencies. If a historic property is located in a local historic district, or is part of the National Register of Historic Places or the Maryland Inventory of Historic Properties, then the approval of one — or multiple — government agencies would be required.
The eight municipalities have gone about preserving their historic properties in very different ways. Sykesville and Westminster have developed their own historic district commissions, but their methods differ.
Councilwoman Stacy Link, Sykesville's liaison to the town's Historic District Commission, said they have never had an issue with developers about their guidelines and recommendations.
"Anyone looking to develop on Main Street, they know what it takes and they want to keep with the rest of the architecture along Main Street," Link said.
Taneytown, Mount Airy, Union Bridge and New Windsor are located on the national register, but do not have their own local historic district.
Jim Wieprecht, zoning and code enforcement officer for Taneytown, said the city attempted to form a local historic district but could not garner the support of developers.
This lack of support was due in large part to the strict requirements for development in neighboring Uniontown, an unincorporated area, Wieprecht said. The Carroll County Historic Preservation Commission has jurisdiction there, he said, and developers were loath to follow in their footsteps.
Still others, such as Manchester and Hampstead, have had such little infill development the process is hardly a concern. The towns have neither a local historic district nor are the downtown historic areas on the national register.
"Main Street was not designed to accommodate a large number of businesses," said Michelle Wilder, zoning administrator for the Town of Manchester. "We have no infill development projects currently on the books and very few in the past."
Most of the Sykesville commission's application reviews are educational, an exchange of ideas — as is the case with Mueller's project — and not a "you are not allowed" type discussion, Link said.
"Mueller has come before the Historic District Commission with conceptual plans, and we gave him feedback and recommendations," Link said. "I don't see any issues with approving his application as long as he meets our requirements."
Mueller intends to rehabilitate the building where Jazbos Dog Grooming used to be located as well as add to the existing structure, Link said.
Town Clerk Janice Perrault said Mueller's project first went to the Historic District Commission for informal recommendations. He then went before the town's Planning and Zoning Commission because new construction requires a zoning permit. Once he gains approval from the planning commission, Mueller will then be able to formally present his architectural drawings to the Historic District Commission.
When both commissions approve his plans, they will then go to Dawn Ashbacher, zoning administrator and town manager, for final town approval.
"The county can't issue their permit until the plans are approved by all commissions from the town," Perrault said.
Link said the creation of the town's local historic district commission was in large part due to the efforts by former Mayor Jonathan Herman, who served from 1995-2009.
It was realized that historic buildings along Main Street and within town limits were important enough to save, she said, and they would need guidelines to ensure the archaeological and historical qualities of these properties survived.
When forming the commission, the Town Council chose to follow the guidelines set by the U.S. Department of the Interior with regards to the preservation of historic buildings.
"We look at [infill development] from an archaeological and architectural perspective," Link said.
The guidelines include what the department calls recommended and not-recommended standards, she said, all of which pertain to the exterior modification of the property.
These standards have no purview on the color scheme of the building or interior alterations. Examples of exterior changes referenced in the guidelines are windows, doors and sheathing, including the siding and roofing. Materials used are also important.
There is a general misconception that the commission is attempting to be a barrier to restoration, and that couldn't be further from the truth, she said.
"Our role is one of guidance on a successful renovation," Link said. "I'm quite sure our [record] is much more heavily weighted on acceptance of applications than the denial. We want to be used as an asset not a barrier."
Often, the guidelines require materials that are more costly than other types. This is in keeping with the historical aspects of downtown Sykesville, she said.
"It's always more costly to own a historic home than a brand new home," Link said. "It takes a certain type of individual to live and maintain a historic property. The challenge is economic."
The commission realizes there is a financial challenge in owning and developing a property within the Historic District, she said. To help defray the cost of smaller projects, the town has instituted a local tax credit.
Sykesville received a small grant from the Carroll County Historic Preservation Commission in the amount of $750 to be used toward the credit, Perrault said. Due to the limited budget the town is working with and the modest size of the grant, the credit targets smaller projects. Any owners of residential owner-occupied dwellings within the Historic District that gain approval from the commission and whose project costs less than $5,000 are eligible for a refund of up to 10 percent of those costs, with a cap on each project at $500.
For larger developments, the Maryland Historic Trust offers multiple tax credits.
Ease of development main concern in Taneytown
In Taneytown, there has never been strong enough public support to create a historic district or commission, Wieprecht said.
Years ago, Wieprecht said, he was involved in an attempt to establish a commission but failed because business and homeowners were resistant to having any restrictions on their property. After looking at the Maryland Historic Trust's guidelines, and standards set by other municipalities' historic district commissions, they presented a draft of their proposed guidelines at a City Council workshop.
"No one outwardly opposed it, but no one spoke in favor of it either," he said. "When the public reviewed it, there were a lot of concerns about what you could or couldn't do and few people spoke out in support of it."
He did say, however, if a large group of property owners came forward in support of the preservation of the historic areas in the city, then the Taneytown City Council would be interested in establishing a historic district commission.
"Unless property owners come forward, I don't think the city is going to push it on people," he said.
For any development in a municipality, Wieprecht said, whether it involves a property that is on a historic registry or not, a zoning permit is required from the municipality's planning commission, which looks at the footprint and the height of the property. Then they can go to the county to get an actual building permit.
If a property happens to be located in a local historic district or on either the state or federal historic registries, the developer or homeowner would then be dealing with a project that could take a significantly longer time to complete, he said.
"The timeline is an important consideration, especially if you have to wait an extra month for another group to give their stamp of approval or to get their recommendations or comments," Wieprecht said.
Every time you have to go back and make a change based on a historic commission's recommendations, money is associated with that just like any development project, he said. Additionally, the time it takes to gain approval adds another layer of complexity to the project.
"At one point, the Maryland Historic Trust was looking at 90 days to approve a tax credit, and that's a pretty good amount of time when you figure [the developer] has the estimate for the project and the estimate might be good for 60 days," Wieprecht said.
The council did approve a local incentive program, he said, to entice developers and homeowners to maintain the historical aspects of the properties in the core downtown area.
To take advantage of the incentive, certain requirements have to be met, Wieprecht said. The guidelines are very basic and only apply to renovations that would require a building permit. The guidelines only kick in if someone is changing the footprint — or perimeter of the structure site — or height of the building.
"Standards governing the compatibility of the overall style of the property with the immediate neighborhood have been set, so we don't have something that's glaringly out of place," he said.
The incentive program is modest because of the limited budget that the city is working with and because high-dollar renovations are not often seen in the downtown area, Wieprecht said.
"We are targeting small business owners who aren't able to put in huge sums of money to do a real restoration of the building," he said.
To date, the city has received no applications for the incentive program, Wieprecht said.
"We just don't see that much investment in the [city's] property," he said. "We were hoping to spur that on a little bit with this program but it hasn't worked for anybody yet."
Westminster's Historic District Commission
Though Westminster formed a Historic District Commission, it is not mandatory for developments to be reviewed or approved by the commission, said Steve Saeger, the city staff liaison to the Historic District Commission. This was a policy decision by the mayor and Common Council, he said.
The Planning and Zoning Commission suggests developers submit to the review or at least talk to the historic commission for advice, Saeger said.
"Most of the folks who want to do a project along Main Street are interested in staying close to what the building looks like," he said. "For the few that aren't, the council has designed incentives to influence them to keep it as close to historically accurate as possible."
The carrot, he said, is a local tax credit. If a developer or homeowner applies for the credit, and gains approval from the historic commission, that person is eligible for a 10 percent refund of building expenses that are paid out against the city property tax bill for five years.
He also said though the review process is extensive, the guidelines set by other Main Street communities, particularly Frederick and Annapolis, are more detailed and have helped make those historic areas what they are today.
"[Westminster] is fortunate with the voluntary system that folks have chosen to go [to] the commission and have been good to the buildings," Saeger said.
He said that Mueller is correct in that there are additional steps involved with in-fill development, but to his knowledge whether involvement in multiple approving agencies track along at the same time or follow one after the other is up to the developer.
"It can take longer for in-fill development, but there is nothing inherently so about it, and a little leg work up front can make it a lot easier," Saeger said.
Historic preservation review can — but needn't — bog down the development process, he said. In and of itself, there is nothing substantially more difficult about in-fill development.
Downtown zoning ordinance and design guidelines for Mount Airy
Mount Airy has made the ease and accommodation of new construction and in-fill developments in the downtown area one of its highest priorities, said Councilman Chris Everich. In 2007, the Planning Commission created a downtown zoning ordinance and design guidelines to facilitate the reinvestment in historic buildings along Main Street.
The commission developed the ordinance and guidelines with input from the development community.
"Mount Airy's Planning Commission successfully eliminated many of the potential difficulties associated with infill developments and new construction by designing the ordinance and guidelines with help from developers," Everich said.
The downtown zoning ordinance is specifically designed to allow for new construction in the downtown area.
"In a sense, what it does is it eliminates a lot of the building regulations that you can't meet in the historic area," Everich said.
Two examples of these restrictive regulations were the building setback, or distance from the road, and a required number of parking spaces.
This ordinance does not apply to mixed-use developments, but the commission is working on a mixed-use zoning ordinance to remedy that, he said.
The creation of the downtown zoning ordinance came about as the result of a fire that caused millions of dollars worth of damages to multiple buildings in the downtown area in 2007.
"When a developer came in and wanted to rehabilitate the buildings, we found he couldn't meet the setback from the street; it had to be a certain distance from the road," Everich said.
This prevented the developer from going forward with the project, he said. The downtown zoning ordinance eliminated the restrictions, allowing the buildings to be reconstructed. They are now the centerpiece of Main Street, Everich said.
The ordinance does not take away from the historic qualities of Main Street, he said. In fact, it's quite the opposite.
"It's specifically designed to place buildings that are completely compatible with the downtown environment," Everich said.
If a developer wishes to rehabilitate an existing building, he said, the commission's set of published guidelines describes in detail the characteristics and qualities a renovated building must have so that it is compatible with the rest of the downtown area.
"The ordinance and guidelines work in tandem," Everich said. "The ordinance allows developers to build, and the guidelines maintain the historic nature of Main Street."
When asked about the lack of a separate historic district commission, Everich said the Planning Commission, and its ordinances and guidelines combined with the Mount Airy Main Street Association, which promotes and protects the interests of the businesses on Main Street, provide all the services of such a commission.
"We haven't set up a historic commission, but in a sense, we have all the tools to help facilitate downtown development," Everich said.
Currently, Mount Airy has no incentive program or local tax credit, but it is something the Town Council would be open to, he said.
Everich said no developers have asked the town for a tax credit, but if one did, he would look into it and determine if it was a fair credit and if it would benefit the downtown area of Sykesville.
Carroll County Historic Preservation Commission
The county Historic Preservation Commission was created in 1970 to have stewardship over Uniontown; however, it was realized a few years later that someone was needed to look over other areas, said James Bradley, chairman of the HPC.
"All other [buildings, properties and sites] that are part of the National Register of Historic Places or in the Maryland Inventory of Historic Properties are in the jurisdiction of the HPC," Bradley said. "Our goal is to help people preserve historic land and properties."
Currently, the HPC has jurisdiction of 1,684 properties, sites and buildings in Carroll County, he said, which are located in both unincorporated areas and municipalities.
If a developer or homeowner wishes to undertake a project in the county, they will go to the Carroll County Bureau of Permits and Inspections. If the property happens to be a historic site that is under the jurisdiction of the HPC, the permit is held until they come before the commission, Bradley said.
"We have a very specific application process that has to be followed," he said.
The HPC then makes any recommendations based on its guidelines and gives the developer or homeowner 30 days to make the required adjustments to their plans.
If the person who submitted the application is unable to meet those requirements in the allotted 30 days or if the person fails to return to the commission with an update after the 30 days, the HPC will usually hold the application for 60 days, he said. There is no set policy for how long the HPC holds the application, Bradley said.
Bradley said that during the three years he has been a member of the commission, he has never dealt with a business development and has only been involved with residential projects. He wouldn't see a business any differently than a residence though, he said.
"I don't feel more or less inclined to handle an application based on if it's a private home or business," Bradley said. "The building could be a totally decimated hulk, but [the members of the commission] are of one mind: Our charge is to protect these properties."
Sykesville and Westminster have created their own local historic districts and commissions.
New Windsor, Taneytown, Union Bridge and Mount Airy are located on the National Register of Historic Places.
Manchester and Hampstead have neither their own local historic district nor are they on the National Register of Historic Places.
The HPC is responsible for 1,684 properties throughout the county, some of which are located in Manchester and Hampstead, and other parts of the remaining municipalities that lie outside of the area cited in the national register. Many lie in unincorporated areas.
For More Information: To find the list of locations on the National Register of Historic Places, visit register's website at http://www.nps.gov/nr/.