Westminster's five-year effort to develop a downtown histori district has taken some curious twists, but the one drawing the most attention is city attorney John B. Walsh Jr.'s recent admonition that council members must not discuss the issue with constituents or the press.
At first glance, it is bizarre that an issue of this importance is out of bounds for discussion. However, as Mr. Walsh explains, his advice has to do with the form of the proposed historic district ordinance.
The problem is that the council is trying to take two separate actions simultaneously.
First, the city's zoning code would be amended to create a historic zone. Second, boundaries would have to be designated for that on the zoning map.
When the council deals with any zoning changes, it must consider them in a quasi-judicial fashion and base its decision on the facts and arguments that are presented on the record. Like a judge, it isn't to be swayed by anything said in the public or the press. The purpose is to ensure a fair hearing when a landowner applies for a change. Since about a half a square mile of Westminster would be zoned historic, the council has drawn the new zone based solely on the information presented on the record. The public record for comment and letters is closed now; thus, Mr. Walsh told the council not to discuss the matter further.
Compounding the confusion, the council decided to put the historic district zoning amendment and the application to change the zoning map to referendum -- a tack that begs for public debate. The establishment of an historic district and the mapping of that district should be handled separately.
The council has to decide if it wants to create a district to preserve the character of downtown Westminster. It makes sense to add a historic zone. Just as the zoning code provides a mechanism for designating appropriate use of property and preventing incompatible uses, a historic zone creates a mechanism to protect downtown's appearance.
Establishing a Westminster historic district should be thoroughly debated until the council and citizens are satisfied all questions are answered. Only then should the council vote. That's what orderly representative government is all about.