Historic District Regs Changed

BERLIN – Berlin’s Historic District Commission regulations were repealed and reenacted Monday night to bring the code in line with state law, loosening membership requirements.

Previous requirements that pulled commission members from different parts of town not only were not in line with state regulations, they had not been and were not being followed in practice.

Until Monday, the town had a policy on the books to draw two members of the historic district commission from residents of the historic district, and two from the business zone, with one essentially at large. Three of the five members of the commission, as it was constituted early Monday night, did not meet any of those criteria.

“It was forgotten about years ago,” said Mayor Gee Williams.

Under the state code, as described by town attorney Dave Gaskill, of the five commission members, the only requirement is that four be residents of Berlin.

With the commission facing some major business, town officials decided to bring Berlin’s code in line with the state.

“There’s just no need to let things be one way in the code and in another way they way they’re actually realistically used,” Williams said.

Audience member Jim Hoppa suggested requiring at least one member of the commission live in the historic district.

“Who would want to be living in a historic district and not have representation on this board?” Hoppa said.

Local lawyer Joe Moore, a member of the Berlin Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA), asked if only three members of a five-member commission attend a meeting, does a vote pass on a simple majority or does it need to be unanimous?

When four or five members are present, a motion must get three or more yes votes to pass. On the BZA, when just three members attend, the custom has been to allow votes to pass on a simple majority of two of the three, Moore said.

“So it’s time to fix that, too,” Councilwoman Paula Lynch said.

Under the Berlin charter, all three of the quorum of the Berlin Mayor and Council must agree in order to pass a motion, Gaskill said, when the other members are absent.

“I think that should carry over to the committees. Keep it all the same,” Councilwoman Lisa Hall said.

Some commissions only have three members, said Cam Bunting, from the audience. Now that all commissions and committees have alternate members, that should not be a problem, which, according to Williams, was one of the primary motivations behind adding alternate members.

Moore expressed doubt over requiring a three-person quorum to vote unanimously to confirm motions.

“The burden of proof on the person who is the applicant goes up exponentially as absentees increase,” Moore said.

Whether a full commission sits, or just enough for a quorum, an applicant would still need to sway three members to their point of view, standardizing the process. In the case of the planning commission, a quorum of four would need to be convinced, whether all seven members were sitting, or just enough for a quorum.

Under the BZA practice described by Moore, an applicant need convince only two people when a member was absent, instead of three.

Councilman Dean Burrell said the need for unanimity with a bare quorum does not allow for any negative votes, while not requiring unanimity allows one dissent.

“The way I see it that’s where the difference comes,” Burrell said.

If an applicant is concerned about the number of people sitting on a request, they can withdraw their application until the next meeting, Williams said.