Montgomery County Planning Board tosses Historic Preservation Commission votes, recommends new historic districts

The Montgomery County Planning Board last night voted to create two new historic districts in Clagettsville and Etchison in the county’s Upper Patuxent Planning Area. Last night’s meeting was the second work session held on proposed Master Plan for Historic Preservation designations since an October public hearing. Originally scheduled for early 2011, last night’s session was hastily added to the agenda because a property owner in one of the proposed historic districts pleaded with the Planning Board at its last work session on the designations to decide on her property before a purchase contract expires the end of the year.

Earlier this year, the Historic Preservation Commission held a series of hearings and work sessions on the properties. A draft amendment to the Master Plan for Historic Preservation was drafted and sent to the Planning Board. By the time the properties reached the Planning Board agenda, however, Planning Department staff sought to override the recommendations made by the Historic Preservation Commission. Among the recommendations made by the HPC were to not create one of the proposed historic  districts (Clagettsville) and to create another (Etchison) with fewer properties.

Planning Department staff made a brief presentation to the board outlining why the properties should be designated historic because of kinship ties in the communities and shared architectural affinities. Planning Department staff described “kinship” communities. These rural settlements are what professional historians and cultural geographers call “unincorporated hamlets.” Much has been written about them since the 1920s; none of the literature appears to have informed the Planning Department’s evaluations of historical significance.

Planning Department staff also focused on shared architectural attributes found in the buildings under review last night. Most notable and significant, according to Planning Department staff, were the many cross-gabled roofs found on late nineteenth century farmhouses. These common vernacular elements were mixed and matched throughout the United States in local and regional vernacular architectural vocabularies not unlike the properties described by county planners as uniquely significant.

During the discussion of the proposed Clagettsville historic district, chair Françoise Carrier asked staff about the great number of non-contributing (i.e., non-historic) properties and buildings with diminished integrity proposed for the historic district. Staff explained, drawing on its research into “kinship community” and empirical readings of the existing landscape in Clagettsville, why all of the buildings were essential to the historic district. Staff’s explanation was not consistent with statements made earlier in the evening about creating historic districts with few non-contributing buildings.

Recommended for designation last night were a Clagettsville historic district (the HPC recommended only individual properties for designation in Clagettsville) and an Etchison historic district (the Planning Board vote rejected the staff recommendation and approved the HPC vote).

At several points during last night’s session, Planning Board members asked staff why their recommendations contradicted the recommendations made by the Historic Preservation Commission. Staff explained that more research had been done and that the HPC did not have all of the information necessary to make informed decisions about the properties in its recommendations to the Planning Board.

Board members Norman Dreyfuss and Marye Wells-Harley pressed staff on why the recommendations were so different from the recommendations made by the Historic Preservation Commission and what the HPC’s thinking was in making its recommendations. No HPC members were present at last night’s work session and their comments were not sought by the Planning Board ahead of time.

The Historic Preservation Commission is the county’s expert body in historic preservation with historians, architectural historians, and other historic preservation professionals serving on it. The Historic Preservation Commission is given great weight in the recommendations it gives for historic designations and that expertise routinely is cited by county preservation advocates as a reason for defending the county’s historic preservation law. That weight seemed to be missing at last night’s Planning Board meeting as the Planning Board made decisions solely based on the criteria used to designate the property and not issues related to how the designations would relate to master plans or the public interest.

There was much confusion at the meeting over what the Planning Board’s actions were and at one point the body had to reconsider one of its votes on the Clagettsville historic district. The board voted to exclude the property whose owner has a buyer and a contract contingent on being able to demolish the property. The vote was reconsidered because the vote taken to create the Clagettsville historic district omitted this property from the boundaries but did not remove it from the Locational Atlas, a temporary status that would have prohibited demolition until the County Council acts on the entire designation package it will receive later this year.

The two historic districts recommended in last night’s votes will be taken up by the Montgomery County Council, along with recommendations made at the earlier work session. If the Council accepts the Planning Board’s recommendations, the Etchison and Clagettsville historic districts will be added to the Master Plan for Historic Preservation and all future construction or improvement work will be regulated by the Historic Preservation Commission.

Several Planning Board members also called for more discussions with the Historic Preservation Commission to improve the designation process. Among the areas for improvement identified were creating better communications with affected property owners and finding ways to make historic preservation more of an incentive rather than a regulatory burden to property owners who oppose designation.

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