Annapolis Historic Preservation Commission didn't approve fiberglass materials used at downtown home

Couple file lawsuit over porch

March 09, 2008|By Nicole Fuller | Nicole Fuller,Sun reporter

An Annapolis couple who allowed fiberglass columns on the new porch of their 19th-century home in downtown Annapolis without receiving permission from the city's Historic Preservation Commission, have sued the panel, charging that its denial of their materials switch was unreasonably stringent.

Valerie and Bryan J. Miller have asked Anne Arundel County Circuit Court to overturn the commission's decision and its order that the fiberglass columns be torn down and replaced with wood.

The lawsuit, filed Feb. 20, has roiled the local historians and preservationists who passionately defend the building standards in downtown Annapolis' Historic District.

They have long complained that some builders and residents are trying to circumvent the laws and that a lax commission has allowed it. Together, they are watering down the Historic District's value with vinyl windows, trim and siding and plastic planters, some critics say.

"There's all kinds of inauthentic materials being popped into the Historic District," said Craig Purcell, a local architect. "This district is kind of a gold standard for districts across the country. We don't want to fall off the wagon. ... There's an issue of the dilution of the authentic brand of Annapolis that's at stake."

The volunteer seven-member commission must approve all construction in the Historic District, and its rules follow the standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties, which are set by the Secretary of the Interior and call for the use of authentic materials. Chairwoman Sharon Kennedy rejected any criticism that the panel is not aggressive enough in cracking down on violators.

"We are about compliance, not about violations," Kennedy said. "The commission's job is to get property owners into compliance with the district ordinance. So when people say we're not issuing violations, that's not our purpose. ... Issuing violations is one tool in our toolkit."

Kennedy declined to comment on the Millers' case, noting the possibility that the court will remand the case to the commission for further review.

The Millers contend that their porch is an addition, not a replica of a porch attached to the front of the home when it was constructed in 1908. That should allow for more flexibility in construction materials, they say.

City officials, the Millers say, required the porch to be 6 inches narrower than the original and for one of the columns to contain a steel rod.

The preservation commission approved the Millers' plan to build the porch using wooden columns, and work began sometime after they received a permit in April 2006. But the Millers' builder and architect said fiberglass would be a suitable alternative because the wood would rot easily and the fiberglass would be nearly indistinguishable to the naked eye, they say. The Millers did not go back to the commission for approval, which they acknowledge was a mistake.

The couple received notice from the commission of the violation and submitted letters supporting their stance.

Among them was one from Daniel Sams of the Office of Preservation Services at the Maryland Historic Trust. He noted the Secretary of the Interior's standards: "In the absence of extant historic materials, the objective in reconstruction is to re-create the appearance of the historic building for interpretive purposes. While the use of traditional materials and finishes is always preferred, in some instances, substitute materials may be used if they are able to convey the same visual appearance."

The Millers say the commission needs to take a more flexible approach toward nonauthentic materials in some instances of construction.

"We would never consider replacing original fabric," Valerie Miller said. "If that porch had been there falling apart, we would have used original materials. The city wanted so many changes that it's not a reproduction."

William Schmickle, past chairman of the commission and author of the book The Politics of Historic Districts, said the commission's ruling against the columns was not "whimsical or unpredictable," but that the larger issue of whether nontraditional materials should be introduced into the district should be debated.

"My basic decision is, if we are going to introduce alternative materials, we ought to do it thoughtfully and not in response to situations like this," Schmickle said.

Mayor Ellen O. Moyer, who called for a summit in November to discuss what some preservationists said was a plethora of plastic planters and windows in the district, took a more hard-line stance.

"I don't think it's a matter of taste; it's a matter of what the law says," Moyer said. "He was approved for wooden columns, so really, what gives him the right to not use what he was approved for? National historic trust laws and the state and city laws don't leave any wiggle room."

Gregory Stiverson, past president of the nonprofit Historic Annapolis Foundation, said 21st-century issues such as energy consumption might color the way these issues are debated. For example, Stiverson said, historic single-pane glass windows are not energy-efficient, and more modern wooden windows could be a "very good substitution."

"Annapolis has a very conservative approach," Stiverson said. "We want authentic, original, real [and] genuine materials to be used as much as possible in our Historic District. ... We are going to need to look at this very carefully."

Wayne L. Good, an Annapolis architect, said: "I don't totally agree with the argument that plastic is less maintenance than wood either. It's true that if you go out and buy a $200 column from Home Depot that's finger-jointed, fast-growth pine and it's not properly ventilated, ... it will rot out. But you can go out and get a thousand-dollar wood column that will last as long as any plastic column."

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