Berlin Historic District Tabled

BERLIN – No decision will be made on the proposed expansion of Berlin’s historic district until after the new Comprehensive Plan is finished, the Berlin Town Council said Monday night, after hearing from several speakers during a public hearing.

Most of the speakers were against the expansion. The Town Council was of that opinion before the meeting started, and the speakers only served to reinforce that conclusion.

Interim Mayor Gee Williams said it was “a little premature for us to immediately make a decision on the historic district expansion.”

The first meeting in the Comprehensive Plan process, held last week, has already prompted much discussion among attendees of the historic district.

“This is going to be an informational evening,” Williams said at the outset of the hearing.

At first, it appeared that none of the audience wanted to take advantage of the public hearing, but Marge Coyman began the testimony just as Williams was about to close the hearing.

Coyman urged the town to work directly with the property owners affected through question and answer sessions and informational meetings.

“I agree with you totally,” Williams said. “Maybe some direct marketing of information, some surveys for people who are not comfortable talking in public…We want to do what people in this community want done. Often the biggest challenge is to interpret what your will is.”

John Hughes read a letter from Daniel Fields, owner of a property in a proposed expansion area. Fields called the expansion “an overreach.”

There is nothing historic about the homes in his neighborhood, Fields wrote, which were built in the 1950s and 1960s. The value of those homes would not increase with a historic district designation, he felt.

Fields also protested that the town has enough regulations on home improvements already, which he knows firsthand after making thousands of dollars worth of improvements to his 1954 rancher.

“I am opposed to the expansion,” said Curtis Andrews, owner of a house in the expansion areas.  “I don’t want to fight with the town if I want to change my home.”

The houses in his neighborhood are less than 100 years old, and not historic, Andrews felt. Historic, to him, means pre-Civil War.

The regulations could also cause disharmony between property owners and the town, Andrews said.

“Berlin’s face is its fortune. We have a great deal of architectural heritage here which is real important to one of the biggest industries in town, which is tourism,” said Berlin citizen Sandy Coyman, head of Comprehensive Planning for Worcester County.

Houses increase in value greatly with a historic district designation, he said, but he did acknowledge that the town needs clear guidelines on what the historic district allows and bans.

“There are no guidelines [in Berlin],” said Coyman. “Most historic districts have an extensive set of guidelines.”

The district’s property owners should create those guidelines, he felt. “We really need to have some guidelines for people to look at and understand.”

Coyman also pointed out that historic districts encompass contributing and non-contributing houses, with different guidelines for each.

Williams asked for Coyman’s opinion on whether or not the new Comprehensive Plan can address the historic district expansion.

The Comprehensive Plan can address how to keep Berlin’s small town charm, and historic character and heritage, which attract residents and visitors, Coyman said, but did not go so far as to say that the Comprehensive Plan would take care of the historic district question entirely. He suggested waiting to see where the historic district discussion that has come up, and will come up again in the plan drafting process, leads.

To Pete Cosby, a member of the Berlin Planning Commission, the historic district designation has as much to do with architectural cohesiveness as historical value.

The town really needs an Architectural Review Committee to advise the Planning Commission on new projects, he said. New houses would submit elevations and a description of materials to be used to the architecture committee for approval and comment. Builders would have the right to appeal that decision enshrined in the town code, Cosby said.

“Berlin’s value comes from unitary architecture,” said Cosby. “The historic commission is not the only way to preserve what we have.”

If architectural guidelines are placed and enforced, new construction would blend in with existing neighborhoods, Town Council member Ellen Lang said.

Historic district guidelines do not smother innovation, Cosby said.

Many people are not used to speaking up in public, and might respond more readily to a survey, Joe Ferster said, and urged the town to make contact with people who do not attend meetings. He also felt that the town could back off from mandatory requirements.

“Instead of mandatory, we might look at guidelines and suggestions,” Ferster said. “People know what to do.”

Williams agreed although he voiced concern about a small minority that might not do the right thing if not mandated to do so.

“Ninety-eight percent of the people in this community try to do the right thing all the time,” said Williams. “It’s the one or two percent that drive you crazy.”