My husband and I attended our first Chestertown Historic District Commission (HDC) meeting on 12/6. We were not seeking project approval but had been alerted to a significant “new construction” project on the agenda. I found out about it via a circulated email documenting details of this approval request first introduced at the September HDC meeting and subsequently re-submitted in November. I want to be clear that our attendance was not based upon an aversion to new construction since other such buildings are located within the Historic District and blend in nicely. We are not resistant to growth or change because they are part of any town’s life. That being said, constructions and changes need to be congruent with the historic character of Chestertown. I had enough information to be concerned that the last condition was not being met.
Attendance was standing room only with interested parties spilling out into the Town Hall lobby. Clearly the word was out about this proposed controversial project. After building alteration requests on the agenda were reviewed efficiently, the meeting focused on the proposal for the large new home. The tone of the meeting immediately changed. In consideration of what was to come, it progressed less smoothly and became contentious as times. There were challenges to the time limits for public comments before the Commission, the lack of public notification on the project and reminders of the roles and responsibilities of HDC members (which I am sure they already knew). Clearly, these issues were evidence of strong concerns relative to the night’s star topic.
First to speak was Christopher Frank, AIA, the Architect representing the Batchiks of Columbia, Maryland, who wish to build the house. His role was to address size and appearance concerns cited earlier and to justify the scale, style and impact on the “rhythm” of our Historic District (better understood by most of us as characteristic patterns, appropriateness or fit). Early on, Mr. Frank understandably denied the label “MacMansion” that had become attached to his project. What it was called wasn’t important to my husband and I but it certainly seemed that “country manse”, “dream estate” and similar terms might be applied. Fortunately, Thomas Kocubinski, RA, AIA, an experienced Architect in Chestertown, had taken considerable time to submit a detailed analysis of these building plans for the lot next to the old Police Station (which Sultana now uses for crew housing) and across from the train depot on Route 289 (Cross Street), along with other tracts appended to the site, such as one enabling an additional entrance from Queen Street. Mr. Frank’s designs incorporate: a house (somewhere around a 6,000+ sq. ft. to almost 8,000 sq. ft. footprint, depending upon who was speaking); pool with pool house; large private “parking court” area; garage; circular driveway off of Route 289 and a large back yard that extends to the rear far enough to run behind Sumner Hall on Queen Street with another segment reaching out even further in the Cannon Street direction. Mr. Kocubinski compared the home’s scope to the Wicke’s house, Widehall and Hynson Ringgold historic buildings. This proposed construction is both wider at the street and contains larger internal area than each of those three. It dwarfs typical examples cited along Queen Street and even a 3-family residence on Cannon. The architectural design bears no resemblance to other homes in the area. The Historic District would contain a modern residence with no relationship to colonial architecture. Mr. Kocubinski politely asked the Mr. Frank if he had walked around the town and his answer was affirmative. With this exposure to the town in mind, black or sand-colored bricks were proposed for accents before the HDC commented that red brick was appropriate. In response to the design’s lack of fit with its other dwellings in the Historic District, a solution of planting greenery along the property’s perimeter was offered as shield for its presence from neighbors and the roads. Considering this is a two-story structure containing an attic, and a large circular driveway along Route 289, that seems unlikely as an effective remedy. In addition, plantings typically need years to mature to two-story screening height.
Attendees who signed up to comment were allotted 3 minutes each to state their cases as per HDC protocol. While there were, admittedly, a couple speakers that thought such new construction was part of change or perhaps the greenery would lessen the impact, the vast majority of attendees disagreed. My husband and I found ourselves siding with the majority of those present. First, Mr. Frank should be congratulated on his design skills and we appreciate the time he had taken to adjust heights, windows and other aspects of an otherwise attractive home, but the overall effect remains the same — the scope and style are misplaced. The house cries for a larger setting outside of the town where it would blend with the countryside and not stick out as an anomaly or “big fish in a small pond” as the saying goes. Second, it is so large that it dwarfs everything around and thus appears ostentatious. Third, it will, ironically, be in the area of the town where the black community once prevailed so it flaunts the history of the modest homes once part of that heritage. Unfortunately, it will also likely be the talk of the town for a long time to come – and not on a positive basis.
I love Chestertown as a “come here” of 15-years and value its colonial charm. I was proud when we were able to defeat Walmart’s plans to build here because of its reputation for making wastelands of lovely, small town main streets such as ours. Maybe it is time for us to come together again.
Let me emphasize the NO APPROVAL HAS YET BEEN GIVEN. Mr. Frank is returning to his clients to share what he heard. The outcome of those discussions might be aired at the next meeting of the HDC. Let’s make sure that we check the agenda and attend when this project is listed. We don’t want to be surprised again. The Historic District Commission normally meets on the first Wednesday of each month at 4:00 p.m. in the Town Hall. Meeting minutes and the plans referenced here can be reviewed at: townofchestertown.com/government/committees/historic-district-commission or by simply searching “Chestertown Historic District Commission”. The project title is “206 Cannon Street”.
The HDC needs well-reasoned responses from the community. This is not an easy case for them to resolve since the Batchiks appear to have significant financial resources at their disposal due to the original 14,000 SQ. FT PLANS (per an account of the original proposal that I received). We, on the other hand, have the advantage of citizens with commitments to preserve the qualities that define why WE live here and what we love about Chestertown.
Carol F. Nelson