Tuesday, September 15, 2009

CC & HPC meet to "dialogue"

Last night the Woodstock City Council and the Woodstock Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) met to hold a dialogue about their relationship. Five members of the Council were present, and all members of the HPC attended.

After a lengthy preamble by the mayor, Allen Stebbins, Chair of the HPC, asked the Council what its understanding of the HPC was. Answers included guardian and caretaker of the Square; maintenance, improvement and oversight of buildings in the historic district; treasure the appearance (of the Square); balance the appearance and functionality of the buildings in the historic district; maintain the integrity of the appearance of the buildings.

HPC member Don Frick expressed concern about the equitable enforcement of public policy and said that never, in his tenure on the HPC, had the City Council voted with the HPC on an appeal to an HPC decision.

Councilman Turner invited HPC members to approach him before an appeal for a "conversation" and also offered to explain his reasons for a vote after the decision. [This is a nice idea, but should HPC members and a petitioner get a chance to lobby a position in private?]

Chairman Stebbins and former HPC member Merida Johns offered that historic preservation is a strong economic development tool. Tax credits and incentives are available for rehabilitation of a building. Rehab is preferable to demolition.

Stebbins said that the City Council chips away at authenticity and in 8-9 years the City Council has not upheld a decision by the HPC when it was appealed to the City Council. He asked where the expertise of the HPC was being valued.

The issue of D.C. Cobbs' appeal to a possible HPC decision (that had not yet been made) was raised. Mayor Sager stated that he accepted full responsibility for placing that item on the City Council Agenda before the HPC ever made the decision, saying it was to accommodate the hardship of the property owner and to meet Open Meetings Act requirements.

That sounded good and will look good on paper but, as I pointed out near the end of the meeting, Dan Hart, owner of D.C. Cobbs, had failed to appear at an HPC meeting when his window request was on the HPC's agenda. I was there; the HPC called the item and no one was present from D.C. Cobbs, so the HPC continued it for a month.

Then Hart approached the Mayor before the next HPC meeting, and the Mayor put the item on the Council's Agenda for the Council meeting on the night following the HPC meeting. Mayor Sager explained it was not to over-rule a possible adverse HPC decision, but every member of the HPC had certainly felt it was.

The Mayor Sager said repeatedly that he would try (and he would try very hard, and then later, he pledged to try ...) not to do that in the future. I'll admit to a heavy personal bias about the word "try". "Try" is not to "do". As Yoda said, "No, try not. Do or do not. There is no "try."

HPC Member Erika Wilson addressed the Council and said that, if the City Council has overruled the HPC every time on decisions, then change the historic preservation ordinance.

Councilman RB Thompson brought up property owners' right, and Stebbins responded that building owners know about the historic preservation ordinance. It is very similar to the homeowner who buys property subject to Covenants and Restrictions. They know about them before they buy the property!

Merida Johns informed the Council that historic preservation is a "powerful" economic tool and that it creates jobs, increases income and increases property values. It increases community pride and identity. She added that historic preservation agencies believe that Woodstock may have the best historic preservation ordinance in the State of Illinois. She added that, in the State of Washington, historic preservation is a more powerful economic tool than wood products or food production, including cattle and fish.

During the public comment period, I threw in my two-cents' worth.

1. No one had told the Council that, as a result of City Council actions, many HPC members were often ready to quit. But they weren't quitters, so they didn't;
2. Woodstock's historic preservation ordinance was created by a previous "public body" - a City Council. And this City Council was obliged to follow its rules - the law in Woodstock;
3. Buildings downtown would not sit empty because of historic preservation requirements; they might sit empty, but it will be because of high rents and no parking. And poor choice of tenants;
4. The D.C. Cobbs' placeholder on the City Council agenda was wrong, because the owner had not shown up when his request was scheduled to be heard by the HPC;
5. There is a great historic "story" to the fine building at 318 Christian Way (Grace Hall), but the Council has approved its demolition; and
6. The HPC followed the historic preservation ordinance regarding landmark nomination of Grace Hall, but the City Council tabled it and has never considered it.

I asked the City Council to "untable" the landmark nomination. Doing so might just throw a life preserver to the preservationists and give them one final chance to avoid a pile of bricks at 318 Christian Way.

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