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June 23, 2009

Bureaucracy Run Amok

Roy Meachum

Twenty six years ago last March I moved into what was then called the Historic District, which was bound on the north by 4th Street; since that's where my house faced, the commission could only tell me what to do about the front; the rest of the place was unregulated.


And that's how it went for years.


The Historic District Commission was only concerned with how properties looked; it was meant to give the impression to visitors that Frederick was still at least visually a 19th century community.


My first disillusionment with the body came the morning I awoke and found a 4th street neighbor had painted his house a color that shocked the tranquility I thought the HDC was designed to preserve. No! No! No! I was told that was going too far. Individual preference still prevailed. But when friends on 3rd street wanted to leave their brick house natural: they were told No! They must paint.


Three years later when the old farmhouse up Market Street beckoned, I was relieved to learn restoring the house was entirely up to me and my then-wife. Sharon redesigned the entire lay-out, converting the country back porch into a garden-dining room. We also expanded on the front hedge by shoots and cuttings. Our hope to build a white picket fence to one side was shot down.


Not by the HDC that had still no jurisdiction but as a political issue, which started with Alderman Jon Kreissig, only after the fence went up. It was a matter of crossed signals between the company and me; they thought I had the permit and I was counting on them. They took it down. In any event, the fence provided fodder for jokes for more than several years, and may have contributed to changes in City Hall.


By and large, the sentiment in Frederick holds steadfastly that a home may not be a castle, as the old saying goes, but it is not public property. Nobody I know opposes the need to retain the city's downtown charms for all comers.


But renamed the Historic Preservation Commission, the volunteers and bureaucrats seek to expand their fiefdom. At first they annexed everything up here as far as Seventh Street and then took in the Market Street corridor till Ninth Street. They attempted, and failed, to grab a section in the neighborhood of Hood College.


When we moved to our current address, opposite the former Carmack-Jay's grocery store, the commission approved plans on converting former porches into bath and garden rooms, even though they were interior additions. The prevalent idea was to keep things just so. And "so" was a mid-19th century ideal. (By the way, why did they not get involved in the Douglas development's very modern replacement for the old grocery store?)


In the process of getting a new mortgage, the bank sent an appraiser I never saw. His "expert" opinion was this house was built in the commission's ideal: mid-19th century. I had questions: How many properties from that era contained cooking fireplaces? How many log houses were built in Frederick after 1800? Did anyone truly believe the invention of pocket doors (ca. 1850) had occurred when the folding panels were installed between the two sitting rooms?


I received the mortgage but no answers.


Now we have a peeing contest over the magnificent hulk occupied by the new Volt restaurant, known to several generations as The Professional Building. To that end, the HPC ordered Volt's owners to restore the gold-painted sign and pay $500 a day until they do. The mayor – with great public support – said city employees have more important things to do. He ordered the HPC penalty put to the bottom of the priority list.


Mayor Jeff Holtzinger's decision to prioritize set off a political firestorm with the usual charges: unethical, conspiracy and malfeasance.


In fact, the Historic Preservation Commission is dead wrong. The structure was not erected for doctors, dentists and the likes; it was a home built for two ladies of a certain age, as I understand.


The commission may be very preservative but it's hardly historic.


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