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June 30, 2010

City Proposes Compromise Solution for Protecting Historic Structures

When does a $20,000 window replacement project become a $70,000 job? As Yves Bradley discovered in May 2008 while renovating a building he owns on the corner of Church and Bank streets, when the city decides the construction materials being used aren't "historic" enough.

Landlord Bill Bissonette ran into a similar problem. Bissonette owns about 200 apartments throughout Burlington, 95 percent of which are in designated historic districts. In 2007, he applied for permission to replace the exterior wood siding on three King Street buildings with a cement-based material called Hardie Board, which is cheaper, more durable than wood and lasts longer.

When the city said no, Bissonette sued, and won. Environmental Judge Thomas Durkin determined that the city's goal of preserving the historic character of old neighborhood would be better served by using a replacement product that's nearly indistinguishable from wood, rather than allowing the old wooden siding to peel, splinter and rot.

Like many municipalities with a high percentage of old structures in its housing stock, the city has long struggled to balance the goals of preserving Burlington's historic character with keeping renovations, rehabs and improvements as energy efficient, sustainable and cost effective as possible. Property owners have long complained that the city's application and review process is unpredictable, arbitrary and unduly burdensome.

But Dave White, director of planning for the city of Burlington, has brought forward a compromise proposal to address such complaints. At last night's planning commission meeting, he laid out a proposal for protecting the integrity of Burlington's historic structures while also making the review process as "predictable as possible."

White spelled out a two-step plan: First, reduce the number of structures that are currently regulated as "historic" from those that are both listed and eligible for listing on the state or National Register of Historic Places — about 6000 buildings citywide — to only those that are actually listed, or about 3000 buildings. 

Second, expand the number of buildings that are subject to the city's design review process from the current 6200 properties, or about 60 percent of the city, to 7700 properties, or 90 percent of the city. 

In effect, White told the planning commission, the city would create a two-tiered system of protecting the historic integrity of neighborhoods: Buildings and structures already listed on the state or national register would continue to be held to the highest historic standards, as spelled out by the U.S. Secretary of the Interior for historic structures. So, when places such as the University of Vermont green, the Ethan Allen Homestead, and the Masonic Temple are renovated, the standard of using historically accurate and matching materials would be "emphasized."

However, for the Burlington resident who lives in a 100-year-old house that's not listed on the register, replacing a deteriorated slate roof with another slate roof would not necessarily become mandatory. In such cases, renovations and improvements would still undergo thorough development and design reviews. However, the standard would be lower, more akin to what's applied under Act 250, in which the changes must not result in "an undue adverse effect" on the building or neighborhood's historic integrity.

The response from commission members was mixed. Though most seemed supportive of changing the current system of historic review, several questions arose.

For example, as Bradley, who also serves on the planning commission, pointed out, "Just because something is old, that doesn't mean it was designed well or built well."

Similarly, as Andy Montroll pointed out, one of the reasons for preserving the original materials used in some structures is because of their historic significance. So, for example, much of the wood siding used in century-old local buildings was cut and milled right on the Burlington waterfront. What's the historic value, Montroll asked, of replacing old-growth Vermont hardwoods with imported softwoods cut in Canada or China?

Amy Demetrowitz with the Champlain Housing Trust was one of only a dozen people in the audience. She called the city's proposal "a step in the right direction." However, she also said that the historic standards set by the Secretary of the Interior were written a long time ago, before there was awareness about such issues as lead paint, energy efficiency and environmental sustainability.

But White disagreed. He called the federal historic criteria "the most living standards in the fleet" and suggested that they've already begun addressing modern concerns such as handicapped accessibility, and energy efficiency. 

Thus far, nothing in the new city proposal specifically addresses the issue of economic feasibility. As one resident noted toward the end of the meeting, his property was listed on the state register for over 30 years before he ever became aware of it. And, that listing only came to light when he was already in the midst of a major renovation. In such cases, it seems, there'd be little wiggle room for opting for construction materials that aren't historically accurate but are cheaper and get the job done. 

The city's proposal will require additional public discussion and input and ultimately will require city council approval. Stay tuned.

"a cement-based material called Hardy Board, which is cheaper, more durable than wood and lasts longer."

Don't believe the advertising! Hardy Board has a fifty-year warranty, although no one can prove that it will last anywhere near that long because it's a relatively new product that has not been subjected to fifty years of Vermont winters and summers. It is not unusual for wood clapboards, however, to last over 100 years - longevity that has been proven on thousands of buildings throughout Vermont.

Hardy Board is fine for most new construction, but not appropriate for most historic buildings.

"the historic standards set by the Secretary of the Interior were written a long time ago, before there was awareness about such issues as lead paint, energy efficiency and environmental sustainability."

The Standards are guidelines that were intentionally written to be open to interpretation because every building rehabilitation presents a different set of challenges. The Standards are routinely reviewed and updated by the National Park Service, and information about issues such as energy efficiency and lead paint is readily available. Lead paint and energy efficiency have been addressed by the Standards for decades.

Historic preservation is not about stopping change. It is about managing change in a way that protects historic resources while making them functional for today's needs.

"nothing in the new city proposal specifically addresses the issue of economic feasibility."

The intent of the Standards is to assist the long-term preservation of a property's significance through the preservation of historic materials and features. The preamble to the Standards clearly addresses economic feasibility:

"The Standards are to be applied to specific rehabilitation projects in a reasonable manner, taking into consideration economic and technical feasibility."

As a homeowner in the Old North End I have heard story after story about the excessive burdens the city imposes on owners trying to repair and renovate their homes. The comments from Prospector represent the triumph of hope (or fantasy) over experience. The current standards are NOT applied with consideration for owners' economic realities. What's more, the P&Z department is renowned for user-unfriendliness, opacity and apparent arbitrariness. The result? Some contractors just refuse to work in Burlington, and many, many homeowners violate the rules. Standards that do not function in our lived reality need to be changed.

As a homeowner and a contractor that lives and works in Burlington I find that Burlington does a commendable job balancing the needs of individuals and the public good.
As for contractors that don't want to work in Burlington I hear that all the time, both relating to Zoning and Code Enforcement. I say it's better they don't work here. If they don't want to understand the codes or ordinances in this town they can work in dozens of others where these things are not protected.
We have all seen what that looks like.

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