A bill meant to clarify the powers of an Annapolis historic preservation commission has some aldermen fearful it would create a dictatorial governing board with a stranglehold on the city's downtown businesses.
Alderman M. Theresa DeGraff said the bill introduced in the City Council last night gives the Historic District Commission -- which she referred to as "the taste police" -- too much power.
"This bill gives the taste police, in the name of historic preservation, incredible powers that I think will hurt the business district downtown," said Ms. DeGraff.
Historic District Commission Chairwoman Donna Ware counters that the bill is not nearly as sweeping as its opponents contend. The commission, a five-member citizens review board, must approve any new development to the outside of buildings in the historic district.
"It's boringly simple," she said. "It's not an effort to gain more power for the HDC. It's basically a clarification of the powers the commission already has."
The bill -- sponsored by Mayor Alfred A. Hopkins and Aldermen Louise Hammond and Dean Johnson -- is mandated by the state, which last year passed a law requiring all historic cities to give their commissions roughly comparable powers.
The Annapolis commission was used as one of the models for the new state law, Ms. Ware said.
The city's bill, among other things, would give the commission the authority to review the design of signs and other displays visible from the street, even if those items were located inside buildings. It also would allow the commission to review alterations to a building's exterior even if those changes were in a back yard or otherwise hidden from public view.
Ms. DeGraff introduced her own bill last February to expand the commission from five to seven members and encourage the panel to weigh more local economic concerns in its decision-making.
Preservationists say the bill does not grant more powers but clarifies the authority the commission already has. And, they argue, the commission can be trusted with more authority since its members choose not to use controls already available to them.
"The commission can dictate paint colors [on historic building exteriors], but we don't," said Stephanie Carroll of the Historic Annapolis Foundation.
But critics contend the commission would become too powerful.
"I'm really concerned it, in effect, creates a shadow government," said Alderman Carl O. Snowden. "It does more than broaden the powers of the commission -- it increases them tremendously."