Berlin Mayor, Historic District Squabble Revisited

BERLIN – A discussion of possible reform to the Berlin Historic District Commission (HDC) regulations sparked a multi-sided debate at Wednesday’s Planning Commission meeting.

Opinions were expressed across the board, with some members of the commission and public in favor of reviewing the standards, others believing the current regulations were adequate, and at least a few questioning why HDC business was being discussed at a Planning Commission meeting.

Planning Commission Chair Newt Chandler began the dialogue by telling the assembly that Berlin Mayor Gee Williams had asked him and the rest of the commission to simply offer an opinion on whether they believed the HDC regulations should be revised. Specifically, Chandler stated that the question of whether or not language allowing modern “energy efficient” materials should be added to the historic codes.

Chandler made it clear that the discussion was only to be about the regulations themselves, asking the public and his fellow commissioners not to bring up the recent controversy between Williams and the HDC.

However, some found it difficult to ignore the proverbial elephant in the room, and the conversation returned several times to the specific case of Williams involving himself in HDC business, an act that many disagreed with.

“The mayor is making moves he shouldn’t make,” said Planning Commission member Ron Cascio.

The event he was alluding to occurred several weeks ago, when Williams overturned a HDC ruling against the Atlantic Hotel. The HDC had decided that the hotel’s attempt to replace wooden windows with vinyl contradicted the town’s historic regulations, and that several windows the hotel had already installed without the HDC’s knowledge were therefore in violation of Berlin’s building code. Before the hotel could take the matter to the Board of Zoning Appeals, Williams interceded, informing the hotel it would be allowed to keep the vinyl windows currently in place. Bob McIntosh, chair of the HDC at the time, resigned in protest, stating that Williams had overstepped his authority.

Cascio also wondered aloud why the matter of HDC regulations was even coming up at a Planning Commission meeting, saying that he believed the mayor should be discussing the issue with the HDC.

Because Cascio referenced the specific case of Williams and the HDC, instead of just having a general conversation about regulations, Chandler cut him off.

“I’m not allowing that discussion,” Chandler told Cascio, explaining the controversy was none of the Planning Commission’s business. “We don’t have a dog in that fight.”

Cascio pointed out that, as a home owner, he did have a dog in the fight when it came to any issue with the HDC and informed Chandler that he would be willing to sit in the audience and express his views as a concerned member of the public.

Planning Commission member Barb Stack did not discuss Williams’ actions and walked the line with her comments, not really coming out in favor of either side of the argument. She did, however, inform the assembly that, while modern materials were generally more energy efficient than historic materials, it wasn’t exactly black and white.

“There are a lot of options out there,” said Stack, expressing the opinion that wood could be energy efficient as well as historic.

Mary Moore, a member of the HDC, admitted to a personal belief that revisions to the historic code could be beneficial.

“I don’t think it’s a bad idea,” agreed Betty Hammond, another member of the HDC, “that we review (our regulations).” She added, “I’m not saying we change them.”

Planning Commission member Pete Cosby, despite Chandler’s earlier request to keep the conversation focused only on the code, took a moment to comment on Williams’ interceding between the hotel and the HDC.

“If you, as a commission make a judgment and they (the applicant) don’t like it, they can go to the Board of Zoning Appeals,” Cosby said.

Cosby added that if the applicant is still not satisfied after meeting with the BZA, the matter could be taken to court.

Getting back to the actual historic code, Cosby said he didn’t see “a need to change anything.”

A question arose about where exactly the current standards, which specifically do not allow any modern materials, came from.

Berlin Planning and Zoning Superintendent Chuck Ward informed those in attendance that the town had adopted the nationally accepted standards set by the Secretary of the Interior in 2009.

“Does Washington run the Historic District Commission?” asked newly appointed HDC alternate Joel Todd.

Ward seemed to take some offense at the comment, telling Todd that Berlin ran the HDC, not Washington, and that the standards had not been forced upon the town, but freely adopted.

Todd apologized, saying that he wasn’t trying to be “argumentative.”

There was some confusion over who exactly adopted the standards, whether it was the HDC or the town’s Mayor and Council.

“We need to know whose authority,” said Todd.
The specifics were never cleared up completely.

Because the current HDC regulations are those generally in place across the country, some were concerned that attempting to change them to allow “modern materials” would not only hurt the historical integrity of the town but also jeopardize incoming federal funding.

“All too often…we don’t consider the consequences,” said Cascio. “Think what happens if we change what’s widely accepted around the country.”

Councilwomen Lisa Hall, who was in the audience, agreed.
“We need to be very careful where we go with this,” she told the Planning Commission.

Hall expressed concern about what would happen if Berlin “started slapping plastic around.”

“All of this needs to be thought about. We’re just blundering forward,” said Hall.

At the end of the discussion, Cascio wryly asked the commission, “What are you going to tell the mayor?”

Cosby ended the meeting by saying that the commission should tell the mayor that current regulations are fine as is and to suggest that, in the future, Williams allow HDC matters to follow the established chain of process.