Friday, December 08, 2006

An Essay on the Proposed Historic District

From Northwest Commentator Ed Cowan:

The meeting, at the Chevy Chase Community Center on December 5, ran for two hours and was intermittently raucous as citizens—some boiling over with strong feeling and impatience—shouted out questions in violation of the official protocol, namely to write questions on cards. Note that it was a meeting to give out information, not to make a decision.

What elicited a turnout of about 150 people and what provoked noisy contention was a proposal to create a Chevy Chase DC Historic District. The meeting was sponsored by Historic Chevy Case DC, a group of more than 250 residents who want to preserve what they regard as historically distinct architecture and land-use, particularly spacious front yards with houses set well back from the sidewalk.

An advocacy and educational group, they have been campaigning since 2003 to have the District’s Historic Preservation Review Board designate as a historic district an area, as provisionally outlined, lying on either side of Connecticut Avenue from Harrison Street northward to Western Avenue. It would run westward to 41st Street and east of the avenue for a block, more or less. Disclosure: I live within those boundaries.

For a map and an informative pamphlet, Internet users may go to Or one can get in touch with Jenny Chesky, president of Historic Chevy Case DC, at JennyChesky@... or (202) 363-9325. The postal address is PO Box 6292, Northwest Station, Washington, DC 20015-0292.

Two officials from DC’s Historic Preservation Review Board attended, David Maloney, acting historic preservation officer, with 21 years of service, and Stephen Callcott, senior preservation planner, 15 years. Both stayed until 9:35, when the meeting spontaneously dissolved, and beyond, answering questions patiently.

In the District now, there are 43 historic districts. The oldest is Georgetown, designated in 1950. Some others are Dupont Circle, Cleveland Park, Logan Circle, Capitol Hill, Anacostia and Shaw.

To summarize what I heard at the meeting: there are on the one hand the advocates of historic preservation, whose paramount concern is keeping a neighborhood’s appearance and land-use essentially as it is, and on the other
hand property owners who are resistant to the requirement that in a historic district one must get approval for structural changes to the exterior of a house, especially for what is visible from the street. (A change of paint color would be exempt.)

A building designated as “participating” cannot be demolished without approval—and could not be replaced with one much larger, significantly different or so much closer to the sidewalk that it sticks out. (That’s my informal summary of the more detailed statement in the pamphlet.) Demolition of a non-participating building “could possibly be permitted,” according to a member of the group.

At the meeting, the advocates and the officials answered many questions about the process of getting approval. They emphasized that 90 percent of permits—i.e. applications that are approved-- are issued “over the counter.” The officials said repeatedly that they offer friendly advice to applicants on new materials and cheaper ways to do the job. They answered questions about what is likely or unlikely to win approval, and what changes would be exempt from the process. In this report, I will not go into those details.

Democratic Practice

What I want to focus on is the process by which a historic district is designated. And here I will editorialize.

The usual procedure is for the advocates to submit an application to the Historic Preservation Review Board. Taking account of architecture, design and other criteria, and community sentiment, the board eventually recommends approval or disapproval. If approval, the application goes to the mayor’s agent for signature. It is “a rare instance” when the board recommends disapproval, according to Historic Chevy Chase DC (pamphlet, page 9).

What, in my view, is lacking in this process is a formal expression of sentiment by the property owners in the proposed district. There is no requirement that they be polled—in a referendum at a polling place or in some other way. But note that such voting is not prohibited.

Several times, members of the audience asked why the advocates contemplated no referendum. Jenny Chesky did not answer that “why” question directly. She said that ANCs would hold meetings to discuss the proposal. When, after the meeting, I asked her pointedly why her group did not contemplate a referendum for Chevy Chase, she replied, “Who would vote?” I replied, anyone who can vote now. Chesky did not say what was wrong with that answer.

In a separate conversation, one of her colleagues asked me whether tenants should be allowed to vote. And what about property owners who live outside the district?

These are legitimate questions, and would need to be answered before a referendum. So would mechanical issues—how many polling places, absentee voting, demonstrating that one lives within or owns property within the proposed district, and so on.

In my view, these problems don’t add up to a compelling argument against a referendum. There is a larger, philosophical question in play.

Creation of a historic district would diminish the rights property owners have now to alter their property without government permission, possibly including the consent of the neighbors.

The advocates argue that there is a greater good to be achieved—preserving the architectural and aesthetic character of the neighborhood, avoiding the construction of out-of-scale houses or alterations, thereby protecting each property owner and each block from “mcmansions,” a vogue phrase that means too big.

It is an argument: individual rights versus common good, more government or less. Such a choice, between values in conflict, should be resolved by popular vote, as several people in the audience argued.

Democratic practice requires such a poll or referendum if individual property rights are to be curtailed—unless the curtailment is decided by elected representatives, such as the DC Council.

Otherwise, a group of highly motivated citizens—some of whom do not live within the blocks to be affected--can propose a district and have it approved by civil servants who are not subject to recall or re-election.

Here I must report that David Maloney, the preservation officer, assured the audience that “what we’re looking for is broad community support.” He added that for lack of it, an application from Brookland was discouraged, and was not filed. But disapproval is rare, according to the advocates’ pamphlet.

A referendum is not required. But it is not prohibited. It could and should be held.

Meanwhile, in Chevy Chase or elsewhere, DC Voters interested in the historic district question can make themselves heard at ANC meetings, in private homes, and at gatherings of community or neighborhood organizations.

Edward Cowan

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