A Very Long HDC Meeting

Last Thursday the Historic District Commission held its regular monthly meeting and if anyone was watching to the end, you may have noticed that the clock was nearing midnight. We usually try to finish at 10 pm but we had an ambitious agenda, including:

1. A joint meeting with the Environment Commission, which included three Planning Commissioners. The City has about two dozen commissions and boards but they rarely, if ever, talk with each other, even if they share some common goals or are tackling the same issue. This past year the HDC has requested meetings with other commissions but it’s been slow because finding mutual agreeable times is difficult and sometimes, I regret to say, the Chair of the other commission refused to respond to emails or phone calls to meet (what’s that about??). So far, we’ve met with the Planning Commission and this month with the Environment Commission. These meetings are just an hour so no decisions are made, but they provide introductions and we learn a bit more about each other to discover areas of mutual interest. It’s obvious that the Environmental Commission and the HDC both want to encouragea “culture of reuse” and among the issues that will involve both commissions are the:

  • Comprehensive Master Plan,
  • Rockville Pike Corridor,
  • Green Building Code,
  • revision of the Storm Water Ordinance,
  • outreach and education programs, and
  • how environmentally sustainable practices (such as installing solar energy panels and clothes lines) could affect the appearance of historic districts.

That’s a pretty long list and suggests we need to find better ways of working together.

2. We quickly reviewed the annual summary of tax credits for historic districts in Rockville that were submitted to Montgomery County. The routine maintenance and care of historic properties is eligible for a 10 percent tax credit, helping those owners out a bit as they preserve these important landmarks. The HDC approves the applications to ensure the work is properly documented and meets the City’s standards. This year, we approved six applications for a total of $105,000 (individual projects ranged from a low of $3,350 to a high of $64,754), so these Rockville residents will receive a ten percent credit on their taxes. This is down significantly from last year, when we approved a record of 16 applications for $224,000. But we’re only halfway through the year, so anyone that’s eligible should remember to apply to claim one of the major incentives for historic preservation in the City.

3. We had a lengthy presentation and discussion on the replacement of all the windows at the Little Lodge, the home of the Bullard family at Chestnut Lodge (the main building burned down recently but didn’t affect the other adjacent historic buildings). Although held at a late hour when everyone (commissioners, staff, and applicants) had already gone through a full day of work, it was an interesting debate about the value of repairing historic windows versus installing new high performance windows. Windows are a major architectural feature of a house and its entire appearance can change (usually for the worse) when they’re replaced without considering the entire facade. But new high performance windows are getting better each year, not only in their insulating value but also in their appearance, operation, maintenance, and longevity. Just a few years ago, it was easy to dismiss them because the new windows were so easy to identify (made of white vinyl, set in wide frames, with wimpy “dividers” glued onto perfect shiny glass). They made a Victorian house look ridiculous. Plus the promise of energy efficiency and low maintenance was not always fulfilled (the seals leaked and couldn’t be repaired, windows got stuck or fell out of frames as the weather changed, and if wood was used, it was far poorer quality than the wood used a century ago).

Therefore, years ago the HDC developed technical guides for exterior alterations that required the repair and reuse of historic windows and if energy efficiency was needed, to use weatherstripping and storm windows. And because Chestnut Lodge was such an important historic site, the City developed additional special design guidelines (scroll down to the News section). On Thursday, the homeowners requested to replace all the windows with new ones manufactured by Hurd, which resulted in our long discussion. In the end, we were able to break the project into pieces that allowed for a decision from the HDC and gave the applicant the ability to move ahead in part. I was the lone dissenting vote to replace all the windows on the second floor because it didn’t meet the city’s guidelines (the new windows must match the original ones in design, size, and materials). The applicant had installed a new dual-glazed Hurd window and a storm window on an original window on Little Lodge as examples for us to inspect. For me, the storm window was acceptable but the new window didn’t match sufficiently (the contractor admitted that they had measured and installed it incorrectly, but despite assurances that the new ones would match, I wasn’t convinced). The future of the first floor windows is still to be determined.

4. Finally, it looks like I’ll be the first incumbent commissioner subject to the new rules adopted by the Mayor and Council (Item 21 of the May 18, 2009 meeting). My term expires in September and incumbents have to reapply and be interviewed if they are interested in serving again. The City Clerk is working through the many changes in policies and codes that will be required, but has already prepared a new Expression of Interest form. If you are interested in serving on the Historic District Commission, please contact the City Clerk’s office and remember that you must be a resident of Rockville as well as hold experience or qualifications in historic preservation, history, architecture, archaeology, etc. (see Article 66B of the Maryland Annotated Code).

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One response

  1. I echo your sentiments about the property at 224 Elizabeth. I’m the owner of the house next door and am hoping that the council does not allow the expansion. The zoning laws should be amended so that this type of situation doesn’t occur again for the reasons you listed and many others.

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