Concerns about enforcement of Elkton’s historic district ordinance were put on the table for the Mayor and Commissioners at the monthly workshop. The matter came up as the last item of business on an unusually long three-hour session jammed with developers bringing up other extremely technical regulatory issues related to a Planned Unit Development (PUD) with 2,500 units and another builder seeking to straighten out municipal obligations as he has arranged to purchase water from United Water Company. There was also an unscheduled visit from Artesian Water and feedback that the town’s sprinkler ordinance was going to hurt buyers and the municipality
Members of the town’s Historic and Architectural Review Committee (HARC) brought up the last concern, not developers, upset landlords, or complaining citizens. Four of the five HARC members appeared to ask the elected leaders for directions, they remarked initially. However, as the discussion continued for a little over an hour, HARC panelist advised the elected leaders that the current requirements are far too strict for Elkton and should be eliminated. “Because we don’t have guidelines for the town, we operate under the Secretary of the Interior Standards. So far I don’t think anything we’ve ruled on has met those standards. We’re not sure this board understands what those standards are or that it would even want those standards because they are very restrictive” Paula Newton, the chair began.
Just by forming the committee, the town is obligated to operate under the Secretary of Interior Standards, Mark Clark added. “It’s very restrictive. The state regulations say you must be in compliance with the 200-pages of the National Park Service standards. . . It would not allow vinyl siding or vinyl windows. . . I don’t know of any property in Elkton that has met the Park Service standards. . . . It’s not that I’m against them, but in this economy no one is going to want to do that. People are not interested.”
Clark continued by noting that he didn’t “think the commissioners want to empower “ HARC to enforce those regulations. It’s hard to start telling “people you don’t do this, you can’t do that. You must use wood shingle, you must restore your windows or if you replace them they must be custom made. These standards are like Monticello. . . . Are we going to get some kind of policing power to give us some kind of power to say sir you’ve got to take those windows out. I can’t see Elkton doing that. That’s what the standards say that you’ve told us to operate under.”
There’s not really a historic corridor in the town, Josh Brown added. Other towns have opted to not have a historic overlay district, but have decided to have locally developed design guidelines. “But what you’ve created here is an overlay where we are in charge of maintaining to the very minutiae. . . . We want to know from you before we make the 200-page document clearer, because we’re not allowed to dilute it.”
When elected officials pressed for ideas on what the committee members recommended, Josh suggested the town “get out from under Title 8 (state requirements) by passing a local law to reduce the district. If you really want architectural controls, don’t enforce it with historic preservation. That’s the wrong method.”
“How would something that like that help prevent the destruction of historic buildings, Paula inquired of Josh. As that discussion evolved, Commissioner Jablonski remarked, “What you’re saying is we have to do away with the historic district?” “You could make it smaller if you want to, but when it comes to that district we have to go with those guidelines” Josh responded. Or Mark Clark suggested that the town prepare a municipal ordinance that would enable the town to draft its own design guidelines, standards that wouldn’t be a restrictive at those required by the Maryland Historic Trust. Still driving home the point about the problems with the current ordinance, Clark added, “There are some houses on Main Street built in the 70s, but we still have to say to that guy you can’t use vinyl siding. . . . What the people of Elkton want, I think, is the general impression or look. I think we could be somewhat flexible. It wouldn’t be Title 8 of Annotated Code of Maryland, it would be based on town of Elkton code.”
“Do you get any support from the state?” Commissioner Hicks asked. “The state preservation planner [Maryland Historical Trust] quotes chapter and verse from the Bible of the National Park Service. It’s his job to preach that purist view” Mark answered.
As the bulk of the discussion had shifted to center on doing away with the Historic District regulation, Paula returned to the original point concerning the committee checking in to see what the town leadership wanted. “What are the consequences of not having a historic district? We just wanted to make everybody aware. I think it requires a little more thought.”
Elkton’s Main Street Manager, Commissioner Jablonski volunteered to send an email out to Maryland Main Street Coordinators. We have quarterly meetings on this subject. If anyone has redone anything, I’ll see if any other town has their own set of guidelines.
With the clock ticking past 7 p.m.. and the once packed meeting room having emptied out except for two lone observers, Mark Clark had the last word on this subject for the evening on the historic fabric of the county-seat. “Elkton unfortunately is Swiss Cheese. There’s a bunch of holes where people tore buildings down for parking lots. There’s a bunch of holes in it downtown. There are a few things to save, but what develops the characters of this town are some of the side streets,” Mark concluded. With that the mayor brought the long session to a close.