Which suit should trump?

  • Saturday, May 5, 2007 3:00pm
  • Opinion

All carrot, no stick. Those four words might explain why a historic building on Ericksen Avenue – and perhaps, in time, the others around it – will see the wrecking ball, despite language in the Comprehensive Plan calling for preservation.

As reported in these pages of late, the building at 292 Ericksen (converted from residential to commercial use, and part of a picturesque row dating to Winslow’s founding) is slated for demolition to make way for a mixed-use development. The issue has vexed preservationists, who cite the Comp Plan’s fairly clear designation of Ericksen as a historic neighborhood to be maintained. Our most recent coverage included snippets of an email exchange between Councilwoman Debbie Vancil and city Planning Director Greg Byrne; that, in turn, prompted one Review reader to plead for greater clarity still: “Why can’t the journalist explain the role and force of the Comprehensive Plan; how the code and ordinances still do not implement it, and; what may be done to correct it? That way, readers such as myself can understand why the Comprehensive Plan, a clear expression of the intent of the community, is ignored or flouted.”

An excellent question, and Mr. Byrne’s full comments offer one answer – one, as it turns out, among several:

“Yes, the Comp Plan is the law. Nevertheless, its wording tends toward the general, and it’s intended to guide the development of more specific implementing documents and actions. Among those is the Municipal Code. In the case of Ericksen Avenue, the Comp Plan statement calls for ‘…specific development standards which ensure the protection of those historic structures…’ in the Historic Preservation chapter of the plan. There is also discussion of Ericksen Avenue in the Winslow chapter of the plan, including the intent to ‘preserve the unique and historical features of the Ericksen Avenue neighborhood….’ This chapter contains the language that has been widely quoted about additions to the rear of pre-1920 structures.

“That general guidance has been translated into design guidelines in the BIMC. The guideline says that ‘additions to existing residential structures should be located to the rear….’ Nomination and designation of historic structures is handled in a later section of the code, which provides that ‘…no property shall be nominated without the prior consent of the owner.’

“In short, prior councils have interpreted the general guidance in the Comp Plan into language in the code that guides the alteration of structures that are retained, but leaves the decision to retain or demolish in the hands of the property owner. In addition, the city offers incentives to induce them to designate and retain the buildings. There are carrots; no sticks. There are also guidelines for new construction intended to retain the character of the street, including lot coverage, roof pitch, etc. The project is being reviewed by the Design Review Board.”

That is to say, absent explicit language in the Municipal Code, there’s nothing to guarantee that historic preservation will follow community intent. Simply adopting the Comp Plan wasn’t enough.

But as we said, that’s only one of several answers, and Mr. Byrne’s views are not universally held. Councilwoman Vancil argues that the Comprehensive Plan contains not just goals, but policies, and that its intent for Ericksen is both explicit and sufficient to prevent the demolition of neighborhood landmarks. Moreover, Vancil argues, the whole design review process cited by Byrne misses the point. Making new buildings look old is not preservation as prescribed by the plan; keeping old buildings standing is.

So which trumps: the Comprehensive Plan or the Municipal Code? Quiet Ericksen Avenue has become Ground Zero for that delicate question of law.

Someone should figure out the answer, before the wrecking ball rolls one door down, and then two.

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