Protecting Historic Areas

Editor, News-Register:

It is a shame that an important debate was begun by name-calling. Often that is what you will see from bullies – characterize the other side at the outset of the debate by first attaching a derogatory name to them – in this case the “Historical Correction Police.” Nice term but certainly not based in fact so far as the design review process of the Wheeling Historic Landmarks Commission is concerned. You would know that if you talked to your reporter – Ian Hicks – who has provided fair and accurate reporting of the activities of the Wheeling Historic Landmarks Commission for some time.

The design review process has been part of the authority of the Historic Landsmarks Commission for more than 30 years and applies only to property in historic districts that adopt the designation. It was first adopted in Wheeling for the Chapline Street Row Historic District when a group of property owners within that District approached the Landmarks Commission to inquire about initiating a process to protect the investment that they had made in their homes. These property owners were true pioneers. You see, this particular block of Wheeling residential buildings has been called the best intact example of high Victorian architecture in the Middle Atlantic States.

It is also like the smile on your face, the hole created by one missing or decaying tooth overshadows the gleam of the other five teeth. And so the property owners from the District wanted to make sure that no future owner of one property would be able to destroy what all of them collectively have invested in their properties.

This request from the property owners initiated a governmental process that took nearly a year to complete. The Landmarks Commission was itself discovering how the procedure might work in practice. The first step was to convene a meeting of all of the property owners of the District to explain what was possible under the ordinance and the legal procedure for adopting certificate of appropriateness regulations as well as the parameters of those guidelines. For example, design review is only for the exterior architectural features of properties and only for the view from a public street, way, or place. Interior renovations are not restricted by these regulations. Moreover, the ordinance makes clear that ordinary maintenance and repair that does not involve a material change in the design, material, or outer appearance of the property are not restricted. Thus, if a particular property is not in compliance with the guidelines, it is not required to be altered and can be maintained indefinitely in its current appearance. Finally, the ordinance does not prevent a property owner from making a use of her property that is not prohibited by other laws, ordinances, or regulations.

The Chapline Street Row property owners, with assistance from the Landmarks Commission members and the city staff, developed their own guidelines for the District. Since this was the first time that this process had been used in Wheeling, we were all working together to arrive at regulations that were flexible but would provide the interested property owners with what they wanted for their neighborhood. Originally, paint colors were not part of the guidelines for the Chapline Row District but were added because the property owners themselves wanted this to be part of the guidelines. As finally adopted, individual colors are not regulated – however, the colors must come from a historical palate of colors developed by the paint companies.

Once the Chapline Street Row property owners approved their own design review guidelines, they were taken to the Historic Landmarks Commission, voted upon by the property owners, and ultimately approved by City Council.

During this process Council held a public hearing at which time one or two property owners raised objections that were based upon faulty or incomplete information. For example, one resident said that her insurance agent had dropped her coverage because she was in the District. This resident, however, refused to name her insurance agent and refused to talk to the insurance agents who were insuring her neighbors. No other property owners in the District reported any increase in insurance premiums simply because the buildings were then in a Historic District that had adopted design review certificate of appropriateness regulations.

This objecting resident ultimately sold her property. She appeared to have no difficulty, however, in finding a purchaser for the property even though it was then subject to the newly-adopted certificate of appropriateness regulations.

In fact, the certificate of appropriateness procedures adopted for the Chapline Street Row Historic District have worked so well that property owners from the Centre Market area recently approached members of the Historic Landmarks Commission to ask how the process could be used for their properties in the Centre Market District. Thus, unlike the inference from your term “local Historical Correctness Police,” the current process for the Centre Market District was begun not by City Council, not by the Wheeling Department of Development, and not by the Historic Landmarks Commission, but rather by the property owners surrounding the Centre Market themselves. As a first step, a meeting was organized in the basement of St. Alphonsis Catholic Church, and notice was given to all property owners in the Centre Market Historic District. There was a significant turnout of more than 30 people who were given an explanation of the governmental process, the experience of those owning property in the Chapline Row District, and the procedure that would be followed by the Historic Landmarks Commission if the property owners wanted to move forward. There were many questions by those present, and there was a great interest shown in moving forward with the process of setting the boundaries for the District and drafting the guidelines. Because not all property owners in the District attended the meeting, written notice of the process was mailed with the opportunity to volunteer to participate in the process or to decline. This is what was reported at the Historic Landmarks Commission meeting on Aug.1, and soon a meeting will be scheduled for sometime in September or October for the property owners of the District to review the regulations adopted for the Chapline Street Row District to see if these regulations are appropriate for the property owners of the Centre Market District as is or to determine whether they should be changed by additions or deletions appropriate to the Centre Market District.

You are correct, the majority of the property owners in the District will ultimately make a decision and the minority will have to agree to comply with the decision. But this is no more unconstitutional than the restriction upon free speech that results from prohibiting a person from falsely yelling “fire” inside a crowded theatre or the restriction upon the freedom of the press that comes from making those who publish libelous statements responsible in damages for their libel. Even you must obey the laws that say that you cannot talk on your hand-held cell phone while driving.

The Historic Landmarks Commission welcomes an honest debate about the pros and cons of the adoption of certificate of appropriateness design review guidelines for all or part of the Centre Market Historic District. But let’s leave the name calling on the edit room floor.

Charles J. Kaiser Jr., Chair

Wheeling Historic Landmarks Commission