The Historic District of Georgetown

  • Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The City of Georgetown, like many other East Coast cities has a designated historic district. Every designated historic district has historic homes as well as homes and buildings of more recent construction. Every historic district is also required, under federal historic guidelines to have a set of rules governing what restoration and other changes to structures are allowed. In Georgetown this organization is the Architectural Review Board (ARB).

To say that the ARB has been a controversial body is to understate reality. Recently, based on one of their decisions, they and the City along with several individuals on the City Council were sued. The net result agreed to by all parties and funded from the City’s insurance was a settlement of $250,000 and the agreement to allow the individual’s request for the use of certain wood products for restoring his property.

This type insurance settlement usually leads to increased premiums for the insurance. Time will tell.

In the last two weeks another individual has gone to court over another decision by the ARB. One can only guess as to what the result of this litigation will be.

Troy, New York has a designated historic district and its version of the ARB. I along with another individual purchased an abandoned Catholic grade school located in Troy’s historic district in the early 1980s. The building itself was not historic. Our development plan called for converting the building into 34 luxury apartments. It also called for replacing the old windows with energy efficient windows on each of four floors and major structural changes internal of the school itself. The alternative to allowing all of this to go forward was for this abandoned building to stand idle and continue to be a deteriorating eyesore for the surrounding homes and the balance of the historic district. In consultation with preservationist and the review board, all these changes were approved and the project was successfully completed.

The IRS Code has special tax incentives that are designed to encourage preservation and restoration of properties in historic districts. We used these to help finance the project with the support of the governing body and the city government in Troy.

One only needs to look to the south at Charleston and Savannah to see successful historic districts, by and large devoid the kinds of controversies that we regularly see in the City of Georgetown. Nashville is another example.

Clearly there need to be rules and regulations as mandated by the Federal designation but those rules need to recognize, as they have in other cities, the diversity of the buildings and the realities of modern construction opportunities.

For anyone interested, one only needs to go to our library or the Maritime Museum on Front Street to see pictures of what “historic Georgetown” really looked like as opposed to some current perception as to what it is we are preserving and how we are doing it. The pictures are indeed instructive.

It seems clear, the way we are doing it is not the most effective approach to managing the future of the historic district. Given this premise, it might be useful for our City Council to take a look at the best practices of other cities and those city’s rules and regulations, including but not limited to Charleston and Savannah. It also might be useful to erase all the rules and regulations currently in place and replace them with a new set of criteria based on best practices of other successful communities.

The Board needs to have qualified members and criteria as to who serves along with appropriate training. The approval process for restoration needs to be stream-lined and shortened and made far less costly and time consuming to applicants.

Our historic district is an extremely valuable asset and it should be celebrated. We need to welcome those interested in moving here and restoring business properties and homes and encourage all to do so.

Lynn Mueller is a veteran Republican campaign consultant who has joined Swatzel Strategies. His bi-monthly column in the Georgetown Times focuses on economics and politics.

Opinions that appear on this page in Letters to the Editor or in columns do not necessarily reflect the opinions of this newspaper.

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