On November 15, 2016, the owner of 204 Washington Avenue (lot 108) in Cape Charles met with the Historic District Review Board to discuss an application for a Certificate of Appropriateness for new construction of a single-family home. During discussion, the board voiced strong opposition to the use of vinyl covering over the outer chimney. According to chairman Joe Fehrer, the board did not want to set a precedent by approving a vinyl chimney.
In late November, the applicant contacted staff and emailed several pictures (one of the houses belonged to Mayor Proto) of similar chimney shaft construction on non-contributing structures in the district. Staff and the applicant had discussed the appeal’s process at this time. Staff provided the applicant’s photos to the Board members by email on December 9, 2016 and placed a review of the November decision on the agenda for the December 13, 2016 regular monthly meeting. Following discussion at that meeting, the Board affirmed their decision on the proposed chimney shaft cladding. After this decision, the applicant moved to appeal the decision to Town Council on January 19th.
The debate and decision by Council came quickly, as the majority sided with the applicant. Given that vinyl clad chimneys already exist in the historic district, the consensus was that a precedent had already been set, and it was unfair to the applicant to tell him he could not do something that had already by been done on several occasions. Historic District Review Board Chairman Joe Fehrer addressed Council stating that the Washington Street area was a neighborhood in transition, with the potential for more new construction. He said he and the HDRB did not want to set a precedent that would be followed by the next set of new homes, and that he and the board took its role to protect the historic integrity of the town “very seriously”.
While Council attempted to assure Fehrer that the decision was not an indictment on the HDRB’s expertise, it could hardly be taken any other way.
Council’s vote was also a stunning celebration of its own hypocrisy. In February of 2013 Cape Charles Town Council voted 4-0 to overrule the Town’s then Historic District Review Board and approve the balcony design of Hotel Cape Charles. At the time, then Chairman Russ Dunton made the same argument defending the decision to reject the Hotel Cape Charles as Fehrer made, mainly to protect the historic integrity of Cape Charles.
The Hotel Cape Charles was rejected by the HDRB because the completed hotel did not look exactly like the plan the Town approved in April 2011. In a letter the hotel owner admitted, “In retrospect, I should have consulted with Town officials . . . my assumptions regarding historic guidelines are informed by many historic tax credit projects, but they are clearly inaccurate with respect to the Town standards. For this, I accept responsibility and apologize.”
Town Council’s 2013 decision (Dora Sullivan was Mayor at the time) to overturn the Hotel Cape Charles rejection differs from the vinyl chimney scenario. While the chimney decision attempts reaffirm a precedent that already exists in the historic district, the Hotel Cape Charles decision did the opposite. It actually created a precedent by standardizing the ‘Mea Culpa’ defense (do whatever you want and beg forgiveness later).
In both cases, the Historic District Review Board did their job, interpreting the guidelines accurately. Council’s decision to over-rule the HDRB, however, does irreparable damage to the Board’s authority and ability to protect the interests of homeowner’s in Historic Cape Charles. It also brings into question the integrity, reasoning ability and general competence of the elected body.