City Council to vote on CHAP merger bill


August 01, 2005|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

Can Baltimore's historic preservation commission be "strong and independent" and, at the same time, part of another city agency? Or is that a contradiction in terms?

Those are key questions facing City Council members who will vote this month on a bill that would merge Baltimore's Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation with the Department of Planning.

The council's Urban Affairs Committee held a public hearing on the legislation last week and will discuss it again in City Hall at 5 p.m. Aug. 8. After that meeting, the bill will be brought out of committee for a vote by the full council Aug. 15.

The vote will mark the culmination of months of debate about the fate of the preservation commission, a watchdog agency with the power to block demolition or inappropriate alterations to historic buildings throughout the city.

Councilwoman Paula Johnson Branch, chairwoman of the Urban Affairs Committee, promised a final bill that will keep CHAP strong, while making it part of the Department of Planning.

"I can assure you that we will come back with a [bill] that is satisfactory to all parties concerned," she said at the end of the three-hour hearing. "We will have the best historic preservation commission in the country."

Established in 1964 as an independent agency, CHAP has the authority to review and approve exterior changes to 8,000 buildings in 30 historic districts. The commission is an 11-member volunteer citizens' panel that holds public hearings and takes formal action; that panel is supported by city employees who process applications and make recommendations to the panel, which may or may not follow them. One of CHAP's most important roles is deciding whether to permit demolition of structures considered historically or architecturally significant. It also has the power to add individual buildings to the city's landmark list and designate areas as historic districts.

One year ago, the seven city employees who work for CHAP were shifted from within Baltimore's Housing Department to the Department of Planning on an administrative order from Mayor Martin O'Malley. The bill now before the council was introduced to formalize that shift and make other changes to CHAP's operation - both the volunteer board and the paid staff.

One source of concern, some preservationists say, is that the Department of Planning often receives and makes recommendations about proposals for development that could harm or displace existing structures, which may or may not have landmark status. The planning department serves as the staff for the city's Planning Commission, another citizens' panel that holds public hearings and takes formal action on development proposals.

If CHAP is formally merged with the planning department, they fear, CHAP may not have as much power or ability to protect historic buildings.

But others say that if CHAP is an integral part of the planning department, it will be in a better position to learn early on about potential threats to historic buildings and take action to protect them.

During last week's public hearing, community representatives and others voiced a wide range of opinions about the ideal structure for CHAP. Some, including Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., said they thought the best solution would be to make CHAP an independent agency, reporting directly to the mayor. The bill now under consideration moves away from that arrangement.

Most of the speakers, including leaders for preservation groups such as Baltimore Heritage and Preservation Maryland, said they could support the merger of CHAP and the Planning Department, as long as CHAP isn't stripped of its legal authority or otherwise weakened in the process.

One of their biggest concerns was a proposed amendment to the bill that would enable anyone who disagrees with a CHAP decision to file an appeal with the Planning Commission, which could then overrule CHAP. At present, those who feel aggrieved by a CHAP decision must appeal to the Circuit Court for Baltimore City.

At the hearing, speakers warned that giving the Planning Commission authority to overrule CHAP could cause CHAP to lose its status as a "Certified Local Government," a designation made by the National Park Service.

They said the designation makes CHAP the official preservation arm of Baltimore City and gives it legal authority to nominate buildings and districts for landmark status, making property owners eligible for federal tax credits for preservation and other benefits.

If CHAP is weakened by a change in its legal powers, they said, the federal government could take away its "Certified Local Government" status, and that would jeopardize its ability to designate more districts eligible for federal tax credits. Fells Point and Federal Hill are two Baltimore neighborhoods seeking to be named city historic districts by CHAP.

The idea of creating an appeals process that would enable the Planning Commission to overrule CHAP also drew opposition from representatives of the city's law department, the Baltimore City Heritage Area and the Maryland Historical Trust, among others. Even the city's planning director, Otis Rolley III, testified that he personally does not support the idea. "I think the appeal process should remain the same," he said.

In light of the opposition, Branch said, the final bill won't allow people to appeal a CHAP decision to the Planning Commission. "That's a moot issue right now," she said. "The appeal process will remain as it is."

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