The Cape Charles Town Council met Thursday to discuss a way forward for how to approach maintaining the town’s historic character. This work session was prompted by a decision by the Historic District Review Board denying an application to remove a small, non-functioning chimney. This decision, and the subsequent appeal shined an unflattering light on the historical lack of consistency of decisions made by the Historic District Review Board.
Town staff has noted in its brief that in the last few years, the HDRB’s philosophy has become much too rigid, and that “biases by individual HDRB members have taken the Board into areas of no jurisdiction”, such as the “paint police”, an attempt to create preferred palette of acceptable colors.
Criticism is that “preservation seems to have become almost the personal property of a small, self-defined group of community standards guardians (and they don’t like vinyl siding), rather than the necessary inclusive public policy function it must be to provide for broader public well-being and sustained economic development strategies.”
Rather than living in a self-defined echo chamber, the HDRB needs to look beyond just preservation for preservation’s sake, and instead focus on the larger community good.
Town Council is using this failure as an opportunity to cast a new vision of what Historic Cape Charles means, to create a point of clarity that respects the character of the town, but also respects the folks that have to live here.
The standard methodology would be to update the town’s Preservation Plan (leveraging the Comprehensive Plan), and then rework the Historic Guidelines. Establishing proper guidelines is critical if a “meaningful preservation effort holds a place in the town’s future”. Staff has indicated a need for a unified policy that manages growth, development, and demolition in an effective and orderly manner:
“the self-conscious awareness that conditions will changes and revisions to plans and documents are likewise necessary; demolition is not a preferred approach but is necessary with dilapidated vacant buildings and has been used throughout the historic district in years past; the use and application of certain building materials and practices (note- vinyl siding is not prohibited, neither is it a preferred material per 1996 Preservation Plan, page 6-7); recognition that buildings experience additions, changes of materials and uses, and periods of significance over time, and “restoration of a building to a particular point in time requires adequate documentation; and flexibility in design review and approval is a better approach.”
The Town plans to leverage the faculty at Christopher Newport University’s Public History Center, which serves as a first step in the process of drafting and ultimately adopting a new town preservation plan. Staff told Town Council that the public universities’ faculties can be a competent advisor to Council, boards and commissions, and staff as well as being a credible neutral party to facilitate community discussion and gather community input. Phase I of the process would be a review of
This move by Council is a watershed moment for the town, an opportunity to redefine, refocus just what historic preservation means in the context of Cape Charles relative to economics, demographics, the environment and budgets.
At the core, this new goal is about embracing contemporary preservation movements that speak to community–systems that are designed to shape well-being. While this concept seems abstract, it seems to sum up what we feel about this town.
Preservation is about finding new uses for old buildings, ensuring a smooth transition from the past, to the present and to the future. It is about managing change, and ensuring our town’s landscape is not dominated by
In other words, preservation must put people first. Restoring people’s needs and desires to the center of preservation realigns our priorities, and gives us as a community renewed focus, flexibility, and energy.
There are of course challenges. We are facing an escalating affordability crisis marked by widening economic inequality, housing shortages, and fears of displacement. How do we ensure Cape Charles does not only become affordable for the wealthiest? Town Manager Larry DiRe also sees a bigger problem, “Affordability is something to consider, but for us, we are becoming a town that no one lives in.” DiRe is referring to the fact the nearly half of the homes in town are not occupied full time.
Town staff provided the following draft recommendations for Town Council to consider:
• The manager will direct the town planner and code official to research and gather data and documentation from public records on “rehabilitation,” and demolition projects in the historic district from 2000 through 2006 for the purpose of documenting the contextual validity of both approaches under the then-existing circumstances, and report to Town Council by May 1, 2019.
• Council should re-interview all HDRB members to determine their individual understanding of the HDRB, the respective ordinances and guidelines, the history of the historic district and past town actions.
• Council direct the HDRB to review the entire by-laws and make any update\revision by May 1, 2019.
• Council direct the HDRB to develop a professional development program for itself and report back to Town Council by May 1, 2019.
• Council consider the current HDRB membership limit of five, and determine if an expanded Board is appropriate. If so, how can licensed building contractor expertise be added, per HDRB by-laws Article II, section 2-2.
• Council direct the Planning Commission to begin the text amendment process to Article VIII, section 8.7 drafting language putting a Council member on the HDRB in either a full voting, or non-voting observer role.
• Council direct the Planning Commission to begin the text amendment process to Article VIII, section 8.19 drafting language creating a two-meeting application process for Certificate of Appropriateness similar to the steps required for a harbor development certificate. For example, the first meeting would determine the most appropriate treatment for the proposed project and establish the agreed upon (HDRB and applicant) materials needed for submittal of a complete application. At the second meeting, ideally but not necessarily next month, the HDRB would consider the application and render a decision if all application materials are in order.
• Council fund a new preservation plan based in current town conditions, reasonable expectations of change over time, and informed by current preservation research literature and professional practices.
• Council rightly prioritize the historic district and preservation by re-committing to the approach stated in the 1999 comprehensive plan establishing the equal standing of the comprehensive establishing the equal standing of the comprehensive plan with preservation plan. That plan, adopted December 14, 1999 states as follows on page 57, “The Preservation Plan for the Town of Cape Charles is a parallel document to the Town’s Comprehensive Plan, and as such, should be reviewed at least every five years.”
• All stakeholders commit to reading and considering contemporary approaches to preservation and place-making with the goal of creating a preservation plan that is intellectually honest about the past, and responsible to future generations. To this end the manager will work with the town planner and deputy clerk to develop by May 1, 2019 a website section for such reading materials, and promote these materials through typical town information channels and the local media.
A people-centered preservation movement creates and nurtures more equitable, healthy, resilient, vibrant, and sustainable communities.