Magnolia Battlefield: A clash over aesthetics
As a Founding Father, John Adams said: “The moment the idea is admitted into society that property is not as sacred as the law of God, and that there is not a force of law and public justice to protect it, anarchy and tyranny commence.”
Once again, in the City of Frederick, the issue of property rights and historic preservation find themselves in conflict.
A property owner on Magnolia Avenue in the Baker Park neighborhood decided to demolish its existing home and replace it with a large, modern, custom-built home. This well-established neighborhood is home to a number of influential city residents, the campus of Hood College and is known for its quiet, tree-lined streets and stately mid-century colonial revival houses.
Neighbors and historic preservation advocates immediately rallied to intervene. Petition signature-collection drives ensued. A flurry of email to city government regulators were launched, all with the intent to stop the proposed demolition and subsequent new construction.
It’s worthy of note that this particular address, and, in fact, the entire neighborhood, lies outside of the designated Frederick City historic district. The historic district is an area carefully regulated and controlled through the Historic Preservation Ordinance and the Historic Preservation Commission (HPC), charged with enforcing the rules.
The neighborhood objections were sufficient to raise the demolition and reconstruction plan to the scrutiny of the HPC. In addition to their oversight of the designated districts, it turns out that the HPC also has the ability to “overlay” an individual property, outside of a designated district, with the same regulations that apply to those properties within such a district.
There are a few extraordinary obligations placed on the HPC before they can take that action.
From the July 14 article in the Frederick News Post:
“Matt Davis, the city’s manager of comprehensive planning, said the only way the Historic Preservation Commission could designate the home as historically significant is if it had some other historic element. For example, if a master builder constructed the house, if someone prominent lived in it, or if something historically significant occurred there.
Although the staff report filed for Thursday’s meeting did not find that was the case, the commissioners still determined there was something there to pursue.”
So, the city’s professional staff, qualified to scrutinize the current regulations and make a recommendation to the all-volunteer, appointed HPC, found no justification to designate this particular property as “historically significant.” In spite of that qualified, professional assessment and recommendation, the HPC still felt there was “something” to pursue.
No doubt the signed petitions, angry neighbors and handful of emotional experts constitute the something. In fulfilling a civic volunteer responsibility, it can be very difficult to look out at a packed hearing room of people demanding satisfaction and then vote to deny them their intended outcome, even if denying is the proper, logical action to take.
Whether it’s a case of strength in numbers, or a lack of political will, it’s easier to deny the applicant than it is to stare down the pitchfork-and-torch crowd. That’s especially true if the civic volunteer aspires to run for office one day.
Historic preservation is an important component of Frederick’s charm, appeal and value. To this there is no argument.
That said, when an individual’s personal property rights are subjected to the will of angry neighbors, particularly when the property is outside of a designated district, we need to pay attention to the divide between those rights and the power of the government. That’s even truer when the government’s own professional staff advises against an action and is then ignored by the volunteer board.
President Adams had it right when he cautioned us about tyranny resulting from the abuse of government’s power. We’re seeing that play out on Magnolia Avenue.