Is Historic District Commission Being Inconsistent?

BERLIN – Last month, the Berlin Historic District Commission told representatives of Taylor Bank and the Atlantic Hotel they could install vinyl windows at both businesses.

This month, a local homeowner was questioned extensively when she asked to install composite — a blend of PVC and acrylic designed to mirror wood — windows in her home. While the commission did eventually approve her request, albeit with a split 3-2 vote, the commission’s chairperson was staunch in her opposition.

“I’ve been on the board 12 years,” Chairperson Carol Rose said at the meeting. “Any single family home we’ve always required wooden windows. If we let you do it, we’re setting a precedent.”

Many townspeople, however, say the commission set a precedent when it allowed vinyl windows in two of its most iconic businesses — the bank and the hotel. The Berlin Historic District Commission (HDC) also approved non-wooden windows in a house on Jefferson Street. Vinyl hasn’t always been approved in Berlin though.

In 2012, the commission told the property owner renovating the apartments above Sisters on Main Street to install wood windows on the front, as they would be visible to passersby. In 2010, Mayor Gee Williams caused an uproar when he told the town’s code enforcement official not to enforce a HDC decision rejecting vinyl windows at the Atlantic Hotel.

The across-the-board decisions regarding whether or not modern vinyl should be allowed on structures in the town’s historic district leave many wondering about just what the HDC’s role is. Though the board is also tasked with approving signs and other exterior building improvements, its inconsistency on the topic of vinyl is becoming a hot topic as the material is utilized in historic Berlin more and more. That inconsistency was enough to prompt Rick Stack to resign from the commission.

“I’d been on the board five years,” Stack said. “Apparently I was wasting my time.”

Stack got discouraged because he was consistently among the minority in voting against the use of vinyl materials in the historic district. He’s always advocated for historic structures to be outfitted with wood windows as they originally were. He says the fact that his peers supported vinyl on some projects but not on others left the commission’s stance vague and made it difficult for property owners to know what was permissible.

“Applicants don’t know what to expect,” he said. “The big issue is inconsistent voting by the other members.”

In Stack’s view, the commission should be following the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties. According to Preservation Maryland, an advocacy group, that’s what the majority of the state’s historic districts do. Nicholas Redding, executive director of Preservation Maryland, explains that the state legislation that provides for the existence of historic districts — Article 66B — says guidelines in accordance with those used by the Maryland Historic Trust should be adopted. As Stack suggested, the trust uses the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards.

“Pretty much all of the commissions have adopted the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards,” Redding said.

He says guidelines make the decision making process easier for commissions like the one in Berlin.

“There needs to be some consistency,” he said. “There needs to be decision making that’s understood by all parties. The only way of doing that is having a set of standards.”

Dave Engelhart, Berlin’s planning director, says members of the HDC have expressed interest in adopting standards but at the moment just have general language in the town code.

Williams says that has proven sufficient thus far.

“If any set of guidelines or code book was all that was necessary to chart a successful course of historic preservation coupled with economic vitality, there would be no need to have citizens serving on the HDC,” he said. “They are appointed as unpaid public servants to make the tough calls in what I believe is a long and proud record of serving the greater good of our community.”

Redding, however, believes standards would make the process smoother, both for the commission and the property owners submitting applications for exterior improvements.

“Standards make it simpler in the sense that there’s less subjectivity,” he said. “It makes decision making a simpler process and allows the people living in the district to understand the rules they’re living under.”

While he pointed to the inconsistency in the commission’s determinations regarding the use of vinyl windows as a problem, Williams sees it as something positive.

“I believe this is a good example of the HDC adjusting to changes in technological innovations and the development of materials that could not have been foreseen 40 years ago,” he said. “Over the past five years as historically styled vinyl windows have become available, the HDC appears to have developed over time a consistent policy by precedent on their use for commercial buildings.”

Williams went on to say that the HDC has been approving vinyl windows for use on upper floors, where they can only be seen from a distance.

“Traditional wooden replacement windows must be used on the first story of commercial buildings because they can be seen up close and conceivably touched,” he said. “My personal opinion is this approach is reasonable and stays true to the mission of the HDC while recognizing that energy costs are a significant consideration in the sustainability of maintaining a historic structure in perpetuity.”

When asked about the increasing replacement of wooden windows with vinyl windows in Berlin’s historic district, Redding said it was something that was generally not supported by the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards. His organization even sent a letter to the HDC in January sharing concerns about the use of vinyl on the Atlantic Hotel.

“Windows, as you know, serve as the ‘eyes’ of a building and removing or radically changing the windows in a building can dramatically diminish its historic character,” the letter read. “In 2010, the character of the hotel was diminished when vinyl windows were installed on the third floor of the hotel, but this is not a pattern that much be repeated.”

The letter went on to advise the commission of its obligation under Article 66B to “make decisions based on the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards” which says deteriorated features should be repaired rather than replaced. It’s those standards that are applied to projects seeking financial assistance through grants and loans.

The letter was not referenced at the HDC’s January meeting, when the installation of vinyl windows on the second floor of the hotel and the first floor of Taylor Bank were approved.

When asked this week if he thought the increasing use of vinyl downtown was a concern, Williams said it was not.

“Not if the HDC’s common sense approach of recent years is applied evenly across the board,” he said. “I believe the approval of historically designed vinyl windows above the first story should be allowed for both commercial and residential buildings, while still requiring traditional wooden windows on the first floor.”

He added that he’d been amused watching residents stare at the Atlantic Hotel and try to determine which of its windows were vinyl.

“The fact that only a very few could guess which were wood and which were vinyl speaks volumes about the futility of this debate,” he said.

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