A historic mistake in Damascus
Homeowners look for way to undo county's unintended historic designation of their home
When Jonathan and Melanie Green sought a permit to build an addition on their Damascus home, they were surprised to learn the county had deemed their 1938 house historic.
As the contours of new Etchison and Clagesttsville historic districts make their way through the historic designation process, some fear homeowners in those areas may face similar surprises. The historic designation process in Montgomery County is flawed, said former Historic Preservation Commission Chairman David S. Rotenstein.
"The whole historic preservation process in Montgomery County bears some significant scrutiny," he said. "Historic preservation in Montgomery County seems to be whatever body is looking at a particular designation wants to make of it."
In the Greens' case, a County Council committee, when it was creating a Woodfield Historic District in January 2009, unintentionally caused the problem. The Planning, Housing and Economic Development Committee removed some of the Greens' neighbors from the historic district at their request. That created a gerrymandered district with chunks of exempted properties. As a standalone parcel at 23815 Woodfield Road, the Greens' house automatically became historic.
Countywide, more than 2,000 properties have been designated as historic sites. Normally properties are declared historic after a lengthy process that involves historic preservation staff research that the property meets at least one of nine criteria, notification to the property owner and public hearings. In the Greens' case, the council decision was made without any notification or research.
The council was unaware of the consequences of its action, said Councilman Michael J. Knapp (D-Dist. 2) of Germantown.
"It's a little frustrating that nobody in the room with expertise said anything," he said.
Historic Preservation staff was in the room when the decision was made, said Historic Preservation Committee supervisor Scott Whipple. He could not recall another instance of a property receiving historic designation without a full investigation.
"This is a mistake, Mr. Knapp admitted it was a mistake," Jonathan Green said.
Everyone Green has spoken to since February or March 2009, when he became aware of the County Council's decision, agrees there is nothing historic about the Greens' house. What they cannot figure out is how to fix it.
"I honestly feel I was cheated out of my due process," Green said.
Montgomery County Planning Board Chairwoman Francois M. Carrier sent Knapp a letter late last month suggesting the council draft legislation to authorize it to reconsider a historic designation on its own initiative under certain circumstances.
Green fears Knapp does not have enough time to get a bill passed before he leaves the council in December.
"I'm very frightened I'll have to start this again [with his replacement]," Green said.
The bill Knapp is drafting would give the county Planning Board or Historic Preservation Commission the ability to make corrections whenever an error is identified.
"At the very least, we'll try to fix the Greens' problem," Knapp said.
The Greens were aware their house was to be part of the historic district the county created as part of its review of historic resources in the Damascus-Goshen area and accepted the low level of scrutiny any alteration to the exterior of the house or property would require.
As a historic resource on its own, however, every alteration to the outside of the house and landscaping must be approved by the county's Historic Preservation Commission. Green became aware of the problem when he sought approval for an addition to his home. The commission told him to change the exterior siding and put in wooden windows instead of vinyl, even though the wooden windows on the rest of the house had been replaced years early before its historic character became an issue, he said. It also dropped the roof line several inches, which affected the ductwork, he said.
All these changes have required Green to get architectural drawings and hire professionals. Owners of historic homes usually receive tax credits for their trouble, but Green cannot because his house is not eligible for national historic designation, Rotenstein said.
The Planning Board will hold a public hearing Oct. 14 on the Etchison and Clagettsville properties.
A historic site or district must meet one of the following criteria:
-Have character, interest or value as part of the development, heritage or culture of the county, state or country.
-Be the location of a significant historical event.
-Be identified with a person or group who influenced society.
-Exemplify the cultural, economic, social, political or historic heritage of the county and its communities.
-Feature architecture that embodies the distinctive characteristic of a type, period or method of construction.
-Feature architecture that represents the work of a master, possesses high artistic values or represents a significant and distinguishable entity whose components may lack individual distinction.
-Feature architecture that represents an established and familiar visual feature of the neighborhood, community or county.
Montgomery County Historic