Berlin Mayor Pulls Rank In Atlantic Hotel Dispute

BERLIN – Bob McIntosh resigned as chair of the Berlin Historic District Commission (HDC) Monday after Mayor Gee Williams overturned a ruling the HDC had made regarding the Atlantic Hotel.

The original decision made by the HDC was that the hotel would not be allowed to replace its standard wooden windows with vinyl look-a-likes. After the ruling, hotel representatives appealed the decision to the Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA).

The case was scheduled for Monday night. However, the appeal was withdrawn before the meeting when Williams vacated the HDC’s decision, granting the hotel the right to retain the 16 vinyl replacements they had already installed. Any additional replacements would require HDC approval, though.

When asked if he thought Williams had overstepped his authority by dismissing the HDC’s ruling, McIntosh, an attorney by trade, responded, “I believe so.”

He added, “I don’t believe that the mayor has the legal authority to tell the code enforcement officer not to do his job.”

McIntosh posed the question of whether or not Williams interceding on behalf of the hotel was any different than, “fixing a traffic ticket.”

Williams commented on his decision, defending the action by claiming that it was counterproductive to remove the windows that were already in place.

“All over town we’re encouraging people to be proactive, upgrading things like windows to be more energy efficient …,” Williams said. “To me, we simply do not have the rationale to support ripping out good, energy efficient windows.”

Representatives of the hotel appeared before the HDC in November, requesting permission to replace wooden windows with vinyl. However, 16 of the windows had already been replaced before the matter was even proposed to the HDC. While the representatives claimed that there had been a misunderstanding, McIntosh saw it more as a deliberate attempt to circumvent the system, claiming that the hotel already had “one strike against them” before they even made their presentation.

Williams was not as skeptical as McIntosh, asserting that he believed the hotel had not purposefully tried to sneak the replacements passed the HDC.

“I don’t think it was intentional,” he said.

Williams stressed that it would be unfair to punish the hotel for what it claimed was a genuine mistake. Additionally, he explained that out of all of the issues facing the town, replacing wood windows with vinyl was not a major concern.

“Frankly, if you stood someone in front of the hotel they couldn’t tell which windows were which,” the mayor said.

McIntosh made it clear that the exact details of the case did not matter so much as the fact that Williams had, in McIntosh’s opinion, undermined the authority of the HDC.

“How can the Historic District Commission continue to operate in good faith?” asked McIntosh.

McIntosh stressed that the HDC did not have the right to force the hotel to remove the vinyl replacements. All the commission did was decide if those replacements were legal or not, and that’s a discretion given to them by state law. After that, it would be up to the code enforcement officer, who has the responsibility and the power, to have the windows removed.

“Can the mayor tell an employee of the town not to do their job?” asked McIntosh, explaining that was exactly what Williams was doing by telling the code enforcement officer to ignore the HDC’s mandate.

Williams stood by his assertion that improvements like upgrading the windows set a good example for the rest of the town and that he saw it as his duty to intercede in what he believed was a potentially harmful call by the HDC.

“None of this is personal on any level,” said Williams, who stressed that it was an independent decision and that the hotel had not influenced him in anyway.  “I haven’t spoken to the hotel or their representatives.”

When informed of Williams’ claim, McIntosh replied, “and I take him at his word on that.”

McIntosh added, “He’s one of the better mayors we’ve had in the last 20 years. I just think he made an error of judgment.”

However, McIntosh did point out that many of the major contributors to Williams’ campaign for state delegate were owners of the hotel and that, while nothing may have been discussed directly, Williams may have felt pressured to intercede for the hotel because of his association.

“But that’s just politics,” said McIntosh.
Williams expressed regret that McIntosh had felt it necessary to resign over the situation.

“He’s certainly done more than his share over the years of supporting the town,” said Williams of McIntosh.

As the HDC moves to fill the spot left by McIntosh’s departure, Williams asserted the hope that the commission would err on the side of progress in cases such as this in the future.

“We do have to evolve into the 21st Century,” he said.