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August 12, 2005

A Dog-Gone Shame

Chris Charuhas

Should Frederick curb the power of the Historic District Commission and adopt some new preservation rules? Judging from the HDC's recent treatment of a downtown pet shop owner, it might be time to do that.

The corner sign used by the Two Paws Up pet shop was confiscated by the city recently, apparently in retaliation for the shop's nifty new "doghouse" paint scheme. Was it retaliation? Was it retribution? Was it a spiteful abuse of power? The evidence for that is compelling.

The shop's sign had stood on the corner of East Patrick and South Carroll streets for a year and a half, and no one complained. In fact, the sign, a clever silhouette of a Labrador Retriever that read "Walk this way," had become something of a landmark. But after the shop's owner painted its facade without the HDC's approval, out came the city to take away its sign. Other downtown shops employ corner signs, but the city hasn't touched theirs. What's more, a city attorney has begun prowling around the shop, trying to determine if its paint scheme can be declared illegal.

If the HDC is allowed to prohibit the shop's sign and paint scheme, Two Paws Up may go under. The shop is on Carroll Street, a retail "dead zone" without much foot traffic. Shops locate there because the rent is cheap. They don't have big marketing budgets, so they must become distinctive destinations to survive and thrive.

Two Paws Up pursued two neat ways to do this: it painted the shop to look like a doghouse, and put a dog-shaped sidewalk sign on a busy corner. If the HDC is allowed to prohibit these things, it will cripple the shop's efforts to bring in customers. Fortunately, some City Hall staffers have offered to help, and are working with Two Paws Up to obtain a zoning variance.

But it's a sad state of affairs when the HDC sends a city lawyer to put the screws to a downtown merchant, and city staffers must spend time trying to protect that merchant against the depredations of the HDC. Starting a business is a grinding proposition that involves a lot of sacrifice, a lot of hard work, and not a little suffering. Frederick should be giving its entrepreneurs extensive help, not allowing its HDC to make their jobs even harder, reducing their chances of success.

If this was an isolated incident, I'd say slap the HDC on the wrist and be done with it. But it's not. The HDC's persecution of the downtown pet shop is consistent with its treatment of many downtown residents. Time and again, the HDC has exploited its considerable power to insist on a rigid application of federal preservation rules, regardless of the cost.

You're a startup business in the city that needs distinctive paint and signage to bring in customers? Too bad, says the HDC - you'll just have to make do with less revenue and risk going bankrupt.

You're a downtown house owner who wants to replace its nasty old lead-encrusted windows with exact replicas? Too bad, says the HDC - you must spend an arm and a leg to rebuild the nasty old originals, and expose your children to lead hazards as a result.

You're a downtown landlord who wants to profitably renovate a humble row house rental? Too bad, says the HDC - you must spend whatever it takes to observe the same expensive federal restoration rules used to preserve Mount Vernon.

All these problems are caused by two things: the HDC's largely unchecked power to control citizens' property, and its refusal to recognize cost as a factor in preserving buildings.

It's good to have an HDC. It's bad to have an HDC whose members can rule from on high, unaccountable, free from any citizen recourse or review. Power corrupts, which is why it must be checked and balanced.

It's good to have an HDC. It's bad to have an HDC that rigidly observes preservation rules based upon spending a lot of federal money. Frederick residents and businesspeople don't have government money to spend on renovations, only limited private resources.

If Fredericktonians allow a resourceful downtown entrepreneur to be driven out of business by the HDC, we do two things: First, we take a chance that the HDC may turn other streets into retail dead zones. Second, we send a message to all city residents that they must bow and scrape to the HDC, or risk being ruined by its wrath.

We Fredericktonians should take some of the HDC's power back. Let's establish some sort of citizen review board to guide and advise the HDC, and veto its decisions if necessary. Let's also write a set of common-sense covenants, with the help of downtown merchants, that spell out exactly what can and can't be done to buildings within our Historic District.

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