Thursday, January 28, 2016

Rockville planning commissioners want more historic designation options

Planning Commission Chair
Charles Littlefield
Members of the Rockville Planning Commission would like the City to take a more varied approach to historic preservation, as planners and commissioners consider a report on the past and future of such efforts. Rockville's Chief of Long Range Planning David Levy told commissioners that one of the main objectives of the report is to get feedback from the public on historic preservation during the Master Plan process currently underway. Levy and planner Cindy Kebba said the topic has not really come up in the many public listening sessions the City has hosted so far.

While communities such as Lincoln Park have welcomed preservation efforts, other neighborhoods like Twinbrook have been wary of what historic designation would mean for property values and redevelopment options for the small homes there.

Commissioner Don Hadley said sometimes the current designation process goes too far. Not every historic building is of the same importance or value, and some restrictions on properties are cumbersome while adding little value to preservation efforts. Hadley gave the example of a homeowner who can't easily obtain a particular siding material for a small outbuilding being forced to pay for custom manufacturing.

The City needs "a more nuanced set of tools," Commissioner Jack Leiderman concurred. He suggested having several gradations of preservation that could be more flexible, and put the property in question into the right context. When it comes to historic designation in the City today, he said, "people are a little bit scared what that means."

Commission Chair Charles Littlefield asked staff why the thresholds to start and complete the designation process are so high. It currently takes 40% of residents to agree to start the process, and 85% to apply the designation. Littlefield said that is much higher than the simple majority (51%) or two-thirds majority more often applied to legislative decisions. Zoning Chief Jim Wasilak said the City intentionally set a "high bar" for designation, to ensure that such decisions wouldn't be rammed through easily by a minority of residents. The current system requires clear buy-in by the community in question, Wasilak said.

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