In May, a new Historic District Review Board was put in place with Susan Eidam and Kerry Shackleford replacing chairman Joe Fehrer and vice-chair David Gay respectively. The new board has publicly proclaimed that it has a new direction—to take its charge to adhere to the town’s Historic District Guidelines in the strictest, most black and white way possible.
This direction appears to come from the Town Council. In public comments last month, Councilman Paul Grossman noted:
While this new board could draw a line in the sand and said they would be consistent from now on, this was not enough since board members could change. It was important for a consensus to be reached on various gray areas in the design guidelines, and clarifications needed to be written into the guidelines to remove ambiguity to the greatest extent possible. He would like them to start with the use of vinyl siding and chimney retention/removal. – taken from HDRB minutes.
While this rigor by the new board is marginally laudable, the outcome has become a nightmare. What was once a collaborative process between the HDRB and the community has instead become more like a 1930s style Soviet Tribunal.
If you are planning on using a vinyl product in the Historic District, don’t bother. The HDRB has gone to war against vinyl, and other materials that are not listed in the guidelines. Wood is now the material of choice, no matter the cost of construction and maintenance.
Below is a list of materials that have led to denials:
Grills between glass
These materials can found being used throughout the Historic District.
Denial is the new normal
In May, the Board denied Certificate of Appropriateness at 532 Jefferson and 210 Bay Avenue due to insufficient details in the plans and the use of “inappropriate” materials. In June, the board once again denied several applications—the use of vinyl products was the main culprit. An application for a new single-family home on Strawberry Street was denied because the design was deemed inappropriate—it supposedly did not fit into the “character” of the rest of the neighborhood.
In the last few months, almost 75% of applications have either been denied, deferred or only given conditional approval. In this time, no major projects have been approved.
What the board has not recognized is that the guidelines are just that. At one point in the June meeting, Chairwoman Eidem held up a copy of the guidelines as she chastised Quality Construction’s Sean Ingram as members of the audience shook their heads in disbelief. It’s frightening to hear members of the board try to defend their decisions by using language such as “the way I see the what the guidelines are saying”, or “I interpret the guidelines to mean”, or “I think it would be more aesthetically pleasing if you did this”, or “It doesn’t fit into the character of the neighborhood”.
In the board’s defense, they have said that they are not happy with the guidelines either, but that is the document they must work from. If there is enough public outcry, they say they would be happy to entertain changes to the text of the document.
Still, the HDRB is making subjective judgements based on myopic interpretations of a document that was totally lifted from another locality back in the 90s. There doesn’t appear to be any self-reflection or common sense when trying to apply the guidelines to the real world—and there are real world consequences.
All these denials and deferrals have a monetary impact on workers and families in our community. In past two months, contractors have told the Mirror that the HDRB has cost the local economy close to $10 million dollars in new construction and renovations that have stalled or been canceled completely. Some applicants have pulled projects because the just don’t want to deal with the board anymore. That frustration boiled over in June’s meeting when a property owner that only wanted to put in a “wood” staircase became so angry, that he began yelling at Susan Eidam from his seat in the audience. This turned into a raucous shouting match as Eidam slammed the desk and shouted several times, “PUBLIC COMMENTS ARE CLOSED!”
Another worry is that there does not appear to be an excessive amount of expertise on the board. In the past, former chairman Joe Fehrer made his living renovating older homes in Maryland. He had an understanding of how to preserve the historic character while allowing for the property owner to make quality changes to their home.
In public comments at the Town Council Regular Meeting Thursday, developer Eyre Baldwin accused the HDRB of not only being ignorant of the Department of the Interior Guidelines, but also for propagating misinformation by cherry picking sections of the code to defend their actions while leaving out portions that that might refute them.
All this is happening against the backdrop of the release of a scholarly review of academic and practitioner literature concerning historic plan preservation. The work was done by Christopher Newport University for the Town of Cape Charles. The document provides a nutshell view of historic preservation. Whether it will be useful in helping the town understand just what preservation means is yet to be seen.
Opinion – One thing the document does make clear is that historic preservation is really a money game, success judged by socio-economic factors. Those of us in the old school fight learned that lesson the hard way—historic tax credits and government involvement in historic preservation is basically a way of funneling tax dollars into developer’s pockets. You know, we’ll preserve this old tobacco warehouse by converting into a 5-star restaurant. Which is fine—just be clear about what this means, and stop blowing smoke about the town’s historic character. Vinyl windows and Azec trim don’t matter one way or the other.
The Mirror knows Susan Eidem, and can vouch for her as being a funny, nice, intelligent and dedicated person. No one is questioning her and the board’s integrity, but the process as it stands now is not working and needs some adjustment.
Town Council Members Andy Buchholz and Tammy Holloway attended the last HDRB and claim to be aware of the issue. A joint work session and a Come-to-Jesus sit-down between Town Council and the board is planned for next month.