Heeding Unhappy Homeowners, Burlington Planners Look to Redefine "Historic"
Burlington’s strict rules around historic-building replacement materials may be on the verge of an extreme makeover.
After a year of discussions, the Burlington Planning Commission has decided that Queen City property owners should only have to use historically accurate windows, siding and roof shingles if the building in question is actually listed on a national or state historic register. For almost two decades, the city has applied the historic-materials rules to any property eligible for historic-register listing — an interpretation that applies to hundreds of properties with seemingly little historical importance. The resulting legal action has cost the litigants — and the city — money.
Planning Commission Chairman Peter Potts says the historic-building-materials rules, codified in the 2008 zoning ordinance rewrite, have proved problematic for many property owners, particularly those living on fixed incomes who can’t afford costly historic materials such slate roofs and wood windows. Though the details still have to be worked out, the core principles of the commission’s recommendations will not change, Potts says.
“We’re trying to be sensitive to the city’s history, because that is part of what makes Burlington Burlington,” Potts says. “But we’re trying also to recognize that the city exists for the people who live in it, and we have to be sensitive to the realities that [property owners] are facing.”
If passed by the Planning Commission and city council, the proposed change would affect a huge number of properties. Burlington Planning and Zoning director David White estimates that as many as 7700 of the city’s roughly 11,000 properties are presently “eligible” for historic listing and the buildings-materials restrictions that apply.
Three things can make a building eligible: It’s at least 50 years old, a historic event happened there, or it exemplifies a particular architectural style.
Historic preservation in Burlington has been a hot-button issue for years. Preservationists say regulations help maintain the city’s historic character and stabilize property values by guaranteeing that no out-of-character additions get built. Plus, original wood windows and slate roofs, when properly repaired and maintained, are vastly more durable than replacement ones, preservationists maintain.
Landlords and homeowners, meanwhile, complain that the rules force them to use more costly materials — thereby driving up rents — and discourage badly needed repairs to Burlington’s aging housing stock.
Historic-materials rules have even pitted city departments against each other, with the Community and Economic Development Office arguing with Planning and Zoning over the rehabilitation of dilapidated historic properties. CEDO’s Brian Pine says that exempting “eligible” properties from the historic-building-materials rules would be a more “balanced” approach to the issue. One risk of overly strict zoning, Pine says, is that homeowners will make repairs without a permit — eliminating city oversight of the work and creating title problems when the property changes hands.
“We’ve got to encourage people to do good things to their buildings, even if it’s not entirely historically accurate,” says Pine, CEDO’s assistant director for housing and neighborhood revitalization.
Ron Wanamaker, a professional contractor and president of Preservation Burlington, disagrees. While admitting the zoning regulations present apparent problems, Wanamaker says exempting historically “eligible” houses would be “a negative for the architectural quality of Burlington.”
“A lot of change could happen fairly rapidly where you lost the historic quality of a lot of buildings,” says Wanamaker, who also sits on the Burlington Design Advisory Board. “The process could be improved, but I think the problems are relatively minor.”
The Planning Commission is eyeing other reforms, too. One would mandate that renovation projects at properties not listed on historic registries be judged solely on architectural design standards — such as respecting “traditional scale” — rather than on the materials used. Another reform would establish a city-level tax credit or other incentive to defray costs for homeowners who voluntarily list their properties on the state or national historic registries.
The new rules would be welcome news to landlords like Maggie Sherman, who ran into troubles with city hall over the historic significance of her rental property on Park Street in the Old North End. While renovating the four-unit building, Sherman discovered that a previous owner had installed vinyl replacement windows on the building without obtaining the necessary permits.
Because the building was more than 50 years old — and therefore eligible for listing on a historic register — the vinyl windows were in violation of the rules. Planning staff told Sherman she could either reinstall original wood-framed windows or put the appropriate vinyl-clad wood windows in. The work will add an extra $17,000 to the job, Sherman estimates, an expense she will be forced to pass along to tenants in the form of higher rents.
“Our rents are below market value, but we have to justify this expense,” Sherman says. The only real beneficiaries, she says, were “the lawyers.”