At Wednesday’s Historic District Commission meeting, two important things happened. A new chair, one with the backbone to stand up to Town staff, was elected. Also, under the deft leadership of the new chair, the Commission voted to rescind its October 5 approval of the demolition of the Armory. This vote puts the demolition back on the Commission’s agenda for its next meeting on December 7.
Local resident Steve Mitchell speaking from the public audience asked that all the documents to be submitted by HDC applicants be posted on the Town website. Our Town secretary objected: Too much work, she lamented. Nevertheless, the Commission instructed her that all documents related to the re-hearing of Washington College’s demolition application be posted timely on the Town website for the public to review. At least three sitting commissioners also complained that the information they had received about the Armory had not been provided in sufficient time for thoughtful consideration.
The timeliness issue was also raised but dodged by Town staff. The new chair noted that information from news sources (i.e., a letter to the editor of The Chestertown Spy from Washington College employee John Seidel) admitted that a waiver of the 25-day rule had been requested and approved. The chair asked who asked for the waiver and who approved it. Town staff was silent, although it is absolutely clear that Kees de Mooy, who was present at Wednesday’s meeting, knew the answer. Further, it is clear from an email written by Kees that he was strategizing with a single Commissioner (who had expressed interest in becoming chair but was not elected) about how to handle what Kees called “a procedural error in the Armory demolition application whereby the 25-day requirement was not followed….” Kees’s email and Seidel’s admission raise these questions: Who did what and why? The answers may be perfectly innocent, but the refusal to respond does not create confidence in the system or its actors.
Another issue raised by the public at the Wednesday meeting was the trouble the audience had hearing the Commissioners. There are no microphones at the Commissioners’ table. When audience members complained, Town staff dismissed the complaints. One laughed out loud and said the public can listen to the tape online—clearly missing the point. The other quipped “Move up closer.” The new chair asked her fellow Commissioners to speak louder. Regardless, there is no apparent reason the Commissioners’ table cannot have microphones so the audience can hear in real time.
So where are we now? To be clear, this is a re-do of the first of two meetings required for a demolition. Washington College has tried to suggest that it is permitted to skip the first meeting because, according to John Seidel, “Washington College has never contested the significance of the building…Because (Washington College) was not contesting significance, there was really nothing to submit prior to this first hearing of the HDC.” Poppycock!
The Historic District Guidelines direct otherwise. There are 11 mandatory criteria for consideration at this first hearing. It is the responsibility of the applicant to supply information responsive to these criteria. (In the interest of brevity, please go to the Town website and look the Historic District Guidelines at “Section VI.2.2 Hearing” for a complete listing of these criteria.)
Instead, Seidel stated “As to the adequacy of the application, there is indeed a long list of requirements for a demolition application. But as anyone who has served on a commission knows, not all are necessarily relevant or in every case necessary. Because (the Armory) was listed on the National Register back in the 1980’s, much of the information is already in the hands of the Town and HDC.”
Statement of fact: None, repeat none, of the current Commission members even lived in Chestertown in the 1980’s—or even when the Armory issue first arose more than a decade ago. Nor were they offered any of this trove of information prior to the October 5 meeting by Washington College or by the Town staff who have reason to know what is in Town and HDC files. Further, despite Seidel’s statement, it is Washington College’s job to furnish all the information required, not to pick and choose what it deems “relevant” or “necessary.” It is the Commission’s job to decide relevance and necessity—and the job of the Town staff to make sure that each application is complete when it is filed.
Here’s hoping Washington College and the Town staff do a better job before the December 7 hearing. My hunch is that the new chair will make sure everyone reads the Guidelines and does what is supposed to be done.
Meanwhile, today is the day the Town is supposed to reply to my Maryland Freedom of Information Act request. I’ll let you know what I get.