An annual report from the Camden Historic Landmarks Commission (CHLC) on its activities led to a spirited debate between two members of Camden City Council during its work session Tuesday afternoon.
CHLC Chairman Allen Roberts presented council with a report on the commission’s activities during 2013 and the first quarter of 2014. In 2013, the CHLC issued 57 certificates of appropriateness, 24 for major renovations to properties under its jurisdiction. The commission issued another seven certificates between January and March of this year, three for major renovations.
As codified in Chapter 158 of the city’s code of ordinances, the CHLC maintains jurisdiction over properties whose owners have voluntarily placed them under the commission’s oversight, as well as properties within three designated historic neighborhoods: Kirkover, Logtown and Sarsfield. As Roberts pointed out Tuesday, the CHLC is only concerned with the exterior of homes as seen from public rights of way. Certificates of appropriateness are sought as part of the permit process for homes under the CHLC as a way of maintaining their historic integrity.
Roberts said the CHLC designated no homes in 2013, but already designated one this year.
He then reported on the commission’s work with Winter & Co. of Boulder, Colo., on rewriting the design guidelines the CHLC uses in its decision-making process.
“We’ve had these guidelines for, like, 27 years. It’s long overdue that we had something more modern than that,” Roberts said, noting that he, council members Laurie Parks and Willard Polk, and City Planner Shawn Putnam have worked with Winter & Co. for some time. “The best news about the whole process is this is not only going to be a book, but it’ll be online, accessible to everybody.”
Roberts said the guidelines revision is due at the end of July.
While Parks and Polk praised Roberts and the commission for its work on the guidelines, Councilman Walter Long -- who said he attended a CHLC meeting several weeks ago -- took issue with processes the CHLC uses to render decisions.
Long read back a statement he made nine years ago when council enacted the historic neighborhood overlays. In that old statement, Long expressed concern that the CHLC could end up giving preferential treatment to some homeowners while others “suffer through” the commission’s interpretations.
He said his point was that the current guidelines are difficult to interpret and too subject to interpretation.
“There’s been several people recently (who) have come to me, written letters, sent emails who have appeared before you and expressed their frustration on what they should or shouldn’t do,” as well as with who is supposed to issue decisions, Long said.
He then read from a letter sent to him by Lyttleton Street resident Harry Barker, who attended Tuesday’s work session. In the letter, as read by Long, Barker details how he and his wife, Brenda, erected a fence similar to their neighbors’. He admitted that he mistakenly had the fence erected without obtaining a permit. Barker said his wife was informed by City Building Officer John Burns that they would also have to get permission from the CHLC. The Barkers volunteered their home for historic designation some years ago.
“‘My wife appeared before the commission and asked the commission to work with us on possible alterations to the existing fence,’” Long read. “‘One commissioner said this was a possibility and that they … would discuss the matter and for us not to do anything until we heard from John Burns. Thirty days later, we received a letter from John Burns saying the fence would have to removed for lack of a permit.”
Long said he believed that when the CHLC was formed, the enabling ordinance only dealt with the exterior of the actual home, not the landscaping or fencing around it. Four years ago, he claimed, the commission gave itself the power to make decisions on fending and similar items.
“For me, it is disconcerting that our commissions can empower themselves when the building official should have the authority to make decisions like this based on code,” Long said.
He said that while many people are grateful for decisions the CHLC makes, it is a case like this that “points out flaws in the system.”
“I’m looking out for the best interests of the city … but at some point we’re getting sued,” Long said. “There’s going to be a home owner or a business owner that’s going to say this is an intrusion on their rights as a property owner and they’re going to sue the city of Camden.”
Long then began suggesting that Burns, who was also present at the work session, be allowed to interpret the guidelines in many situations. At that point, however, Polk interrupted and asked that he be granted a point of order to speak. Long objected to the interruption and pointed out that it would take a majority vote to grant Polk’s point of order. Mayor Tony Scully made the motion, seconded by Parks.
Scully then turned to Long and said, “Can’t we just do this as friends?” and Long agreed to let Polk speak.
Polk called Long’s comments a “litany” that has been heard “time and time again” about how the CHLC or its processes are too burdensome on residential and commercial property owners.
“There are certain decisions that are made where you have human beings sitting with viewing applications that some person may think is unfair,” Polk said. “Any time you’ve got human beings involved in a process, there is going to be some degree of the process being faulty.”
Polk then suggested that if a particular member of council wanted to correct “this perceived error,” they should bring forward an agenda item to “appeal” Chapter 158 of the city code, thereby abolishing the CHLC.
“Then, we can have plastic houses … you can have a sign in front of the property that says ‘Originally built in 1832, destroyed in 2014 and rebuilt with plastic materials and ugly paint and whatever else the homeowner wants to do in 2015,’” he said. “Now, we’ve got a system, and we have to learn to work with it. Yes, it is sometimes faulty, but it’s the best we can do.”
After Polk finished, Long said it was “wholly inappropriate” for Polk to have interrupted him and that his fellow councilman’s questions might have been answered if he hadn’t done so.
“First of all, I have no intention of abolishing the commission,” Long said. “For me, the commission and its place in the city of Camden should be to … protect the historic houses that are under their jurisdiction, that are voluntarily designated and with Mr. Burns being the designee for the approval of any future permits.”
Long pointed out that, currently, if anyone disagrees with the commission, their only recourse for appeal is in circuit court, which he termed “absolutely absurd.” He said he receives complaints weekly from people about having to go to the CHLC in order to do something with their properties. He also challenged Polk to come up with specific examples of properties where owners have done something not in keeping with Camden’s historic nature prior to the CHLC’s formation.
“I’m telling you, we’ve created this fear-based commission, or process, so that people have to go through this bureaucratic method,” Long said.
He also said that it was “ridiculous” for Polk and others to try to keep him from expressing what others are expressing to him about the CHLC. Long then reiterated his suggestion that Burns is “perfectly capable” of making some of the decisions being left to the CHLC now.
Parks, who served as CHLC chair prior to be elected to council, defended the commission and its practices. She said fences have always been a part of the current CHLC design guidelines.
“As long as you can see it from the street, the commission has authorization to review it. That’s just the way it is,” she said, calling the process a good system. “It’s in place to protect the integrity of Camden. Camden’s Historic District is a selling point to bring people in from across the country and across the world. If you … get rid of that authentic integrity, it’s not going to make you any different from any other dried up little town.”
Parks also pointed out that the appeals process to the circuit court is a state statute.
“You got a problem with it, you go to Columbia and you fight with them about that, but we’re following the law,” Parks said.
She also had another suggestion for Long:
“They (the commission) have had a seat open for a while and I don’t see anybody nominating anybody,” Parks said. “I think that’s wrong. You have a question about the quality of this commission … if there is somebody you want to put on this commission, put ‘em on!”
Polk then apologized for what Long “perceived to be my bad behavior,” but said he felt he was within his rights to have asked for the point of order to interrupt Long.
“I certainly did not mean anything personal,” Polk said. “However, we have kicked this can down the road on and on. Somehow, someway, we’ve got to find a solution and I think that as long as you have human beings making interpretations, sitting in judgment, there is always that opportunity for someone to be disgruntled.”
Long countered with an example from a CHLC meeting he attended where he felt a commissioner had gone too far in responding to an application from a resident.
“If you have a house and you have a cottage in back of your house…. The owner requested a demolition permit to remove this house. If this were yours, in your back yard, and you made that request, and you had a commissioner asking if you would convert that house to transitional housing or for Habitat for Humanity -- would you think that would be appropriate?” Long asked. “I’m telling you, (the process) is set up to be faulty.”
At that point, Scully said it was time to move on to other subjects. He said he hoped the new guidelines would help to make the CHLC’s processes work more smoothly, but acknowledged there are possible communication problems now and that he hoped further discussion would help as well.