As Washington College’s application to tear down the historic Chestertown Armory wends its way through the Chestertown Historic District Commission, the duties and responsibilities of the Town to the HDC have come to light.
As a “Certified Local Government,” the Town of Chestertown has an affirmative duty to provide educational training to its Historic District Commission annually. The CLG program was federally mandated by an amendment to the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 and is administered by the National Park Service. This training can be arranged through the Maryland Association of Historic District Commissions at a modest cost, which can be covered by grant funding. Training starts with a free online tutorial and manual which can be downloaded. Training continues with workshops guided by instructors who have been certified by MAHDC as experts in the various subject matters and who meet the Secretary of the Interior’s Professional Qualifications Standards.
So, it’s required by federal law, it’s online and downloadable, and it can be paid for with grants, but the Town of Chestertown has not provided any training to its HDCs since 2009!
All that is about to end thanks to new Town Manager Larry DiRe. When the lack of HDC training was brought to DiRe’s attention by a knowledgeable member of the public, he immediately put the wheels in motion to get the HDC the training it needs and deserved. A thumbs up to Mr. DiRe.
Now for the thumbs down.
The Town of Chestertown also has an affirmative obligation to protect the historic structures within its Historic District. This requirement is set out in the Town Ordinances at Chapter 93: Historic Area Zoning. The obligation is clear: “Neither the owner nor the person in charge of property which is within the Historic District…shall permit the structure to fall into a state of disrepair which may result in the deterioration of any exterior appurtenance or architectural feature so as to produce or tend to produce, in the judgment of the Town Building Official after consultation with the Historic Commission, a detrimental effect upon …the structure in question.” Among the detrimental effects cited in the Ordinance are deterioration of exterior walls, roofs, crumbling plaster or mortar; ineffective waterproofing of exterior walls, roofs, and foundations; and broken windows or doors.
These effects are known as demolition by neglect, which is prohibited under Town Ordinances and the Historic District Guidelines.
And the Historic District Commission “is authorized to prevent such situations and has done so in the past,” read the HDC Guidelines.
There’s even a specific penalty for the owner who permits such deterioration: “…shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and shall be liable for fine of not more than $500. Each day that the violation shall be permitted to exist shall constitute a separate offense.” (Emphasis added.)
By its own admission Washington College has permitted the historic Armory to fall into a state of disrepair resulting in in the deterioration of its exterior. Just read the applications to demolish the historic Armory Washington College submitted last year and again this year. (The current application is on the Town website, as are public comments about it.)
More than a year ago, local preservation architect Tom Kocubinski toured the Armory and noted a hole in its roof, broken and open windows, flaking exterior plaster, lack of floodproofing at riverside doors—all of which permitted water intrusion to the interior and the growth of mold of which Washington College so bitterly complains now and cites as justification to tear down the historic building. (Kocubinski took the photos which accompany this letter. His findings were published in local media at the time.)
The question is how did the Town allow this to happen? Where was the “Town Building Official” responsible for bringing these problems to the attention of the HDC?
According to the Ordinance, “It shall be the duty of all officers and employees of the town to assist the enforcing officer by reporting to him or her any seeming violation….” (Emphasis added.) The Town sent members of its maintenance crew into the Armory within the last year. Why? To whom did they report what they saw? Was the HDC informed?
Where were they all—Town officials, Town employees, the HDC–as the Armory was allowed to be compromised?
The Town and the HDC need to take immediate action to cite Washington College for its deliberate failure to maintain the Armory, direct Washington College to fix the problems and stabilize the Armory, give Washington College a deadline for these fixes, and fine Washington College $500 per day until the problems are fixed. (In truth, Washington College should be fined retroactive to the date it filed its demolition application last year when it first admitted its neglect.)
With a new Town Manager, proper enforcement of the Town’s Ordinances and the Historic District Guidelines might now be possible. So, thumbs down for the Town for now, but fingers crossed for the future.