A neighborhood divided: Proposed regs in Woolen Mills still controversial

A recent poll of Woolen Mills residents who live in the proposed historic district showed that 57 percent of survey respondents were not in favor of the change. Photo by Skycladap.com A recent poll of Woolen Mills residents who live in the proposed historic district showed that 57 percent of survey respondents were not in favor of the change. Photo by Skycladap.com

City Council is expected to vote next month on a proposed Woolen Mills historic conservation district that would impose new regulations on about 85 residences and that continues to divide homeowners in the neighborhood.

“It’s pretty cut and dry that people don’t want it,” says Eric Hurt, a resident who will live in the historic overlay if it passes. “When a neighborhood association divides a neighborhood and steps onto private property, it’s bound to get heated,” he says in an email to a couple of other Woolen Mills residents.

Though the Woolen Mills Neighborhood Association originally was in favor of implementing the historic conservation district, a recent poll by the city showed that 57 percent of poll respondents living in the proposed area weren’t in favor of it, and that’s why the board pulled its support, according to chair John Frazee.

The initial poll done by the neighborhood association in May 2016 showed that 94 percent of Woolen Mills affected property owners who responded supported the conservation district. Opponents have long argued that those originally in favor weren’t given enough information to make a proper decision, thus paving the way for the second poll.

The text for the new zoning was rewritten for clarity in February, because there were questions about what would be allowed in the historic conservation district and whether homeowners would need Board of Architectural Review approval before building structures as insignificant as birdhouses and mailboxes, Frazee says.

As it’s written now, a certificate of appropriateness will be required for all new buildings that require a building permit unless they aren’t visible from any abutting streets. Additions located to the side or front of principal structures will require approval, as will additions that are equal to or greater than 50 percent of the total gross floor area of the existing building, or additions located on the rear of the existing structure that exceed its height or width.

Painting any previously unpainted brick or masonry will also require a certificate of appropriateness, but repainting a material other than unpainted brick or masonry is exempt. Ordinary maintenance and repairs are also exempt.

“It’s very important to note that I feel that offering the neighborhood an opportunity for the historic district was the right thing to do. I believe that the trade-off of regulation and potential cost is well offset by the protection the neighborhood gets when it comes to things like new construction and demolition,” says Frazee, who has lived in Woolen Mills for about 12 years and spent six of them on the neighborhood association board. He lives two houses outside of the proposed conservation district that namely protects properties on Chesapeake, Riverside, Steephill, Franklin and East Market streets.

“He’s willing to put rules and regulations on the people, but not follow them himself,” says Hurt. And in his message to neighbors, he says, “This situation is very, very, very simple. These homes and properties are owned not by [Neighborhood Development Services] or the [Woolen Mills Neighborhood Association], but by the people who have worked hard, saved money, taken out a mortgage and purchased them. Shame on anyone who is attempting to place restrictions and costs onto their own neighbors.”

Longtime Woolen Mills resident Bill Emory, who is a former member of the City Planning Commission, advocated for passing the ordinance at the City Council meeting, and said historic conservation districts were created to protect the character of “modest, historic neighborhoods without imposing harsh requirements on residents who want to remodel their homes.”

He said there have been no homeowner appeals to council regarding the ordinance since two conservation districts were implemented in the Martha Jefferson and Venable neighborhoods in 2010 and 2014, respectively.

City Councilor Kathy Galvin, an architect, has been vocal in supporting the proposed zoning regulations. She says the Board of Architectural Review voted 9-0 and the Planning Commission voted 6-0 to approve them based on resident input and physical surveys. She also says this historic district is an explicit goal of the city’s comprehensive plan.

“Allowing a second opinion poll to overturn these votes made little sense when resident input is supposed to inform the PC and BAR, not undermine their legal authority,” Galvin says. “If you don’t like the law, change it. Don’t sabotage it.”

The Martha Jefferson and Venable neighborhood associations obtained conservation district status after submitting letters of support and poll results before any BAR or Planning Commission votes, Galvin says.

“No other neighborhood association had a second poll taken after the BAR and PC had voted in favor of their conservation district designation,” she says. “To suddenly make this second poll a condition of council’s approval therefore struck me as being inconsistent and unfair. City Councilors take an oath to govern fairly and in accordance with the law.”

Updated August 1 at 9:00am to clarify poll numbers.

Related links:

Historic conservation at center of controversy

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