Ann Arbor News Confuses HDC

December 10, 2002 by  
Filed under News

Dear Ann Arbor News,

There was a letter in the December 9, 2002 Ann Arbor News criticizing the Historic District Commission (HDC). The Ann Arbor News should have clarified which HDC the writer is talking about. I am assuming the writer is referring to the Ann Arbor HDC. I have not had any direct dealings with the Ann Arbor HDC, but I can tell you from my experience, working with the Ypsilanti HDC has been a real pleasure. Oh sure, we have had some disagreements and I know there are other owners that have had bad experiences with the Ypsilanti HDC.

Yet, I find the biggest mistake most people make in front of the HDC, whether it is Ann Arbor or Ypsilanti, is the attitude that they bring to the meeting. If you come in with the attitude that this is my house and I can do what ever I darn well please and who the heck are you to tell me what I can or can’t do, I find that that most of those people have a bad experience.

The second biggest mistake is not being prepared. Many applicants do not know what has been approved in the past or even have a basic understanding of historic preservation. If you don’t know, ask. You will find most HDC board members are willing to meet with you to talk about your project and help you address any questions that you may have. You will find the same from the city officials tasked to work with the HDC. They are a wealth of information, yet most property owners never seek out city staff for help with their project. In Ypsilanti, the city’s website (http://www.cityofypsilanti.com) is a great source of information including applications and important fact sheets that every property owner should read before applying for a permit. Go to their home page and Select Boards and Commissions and then follow the link to the Historic District Commission.

You should also talk with your neighbors. Learn from them what strategies have worked and what has failed. I also strongly urge you to go to a couple of meetings before you plan to present your project. By looking at what other people present, you can learn a great deal about how to make an effective presentation and the type of questions that might be asked. Don’t worry about being nervous, this isn’t a test of your public speaking skills. If you get nervous, stop, take a breath, and then move on.

Go in to the meeting with the attitude that you want to learn and listen. The HDC and city can save you from making huge mistakes that could cost you a great deal of money if you take a moment to listen. And always, be polite. By simply saying please and thank you, you would be surprised just how far you can get. At one meeting I even brought some homemade cookies. The chair of the HDC said that in some 20 plus years, no one has ever brought cookies.

I am not suggesting that everyone should bring cookies but I think it points out the most serious problem that folks have with the HDC; they forget that these people are your neighbors. Every member on the board lives in your community, perhaps even on your street.

The HDC board is volunteers who donate their time to serve on a board to make their community better. It is hard work and long hours. In Ypsilanti they get no money. To help speed projects along, the Ypsilanti HDC even meets twice a month. The board members do it for the reward of seeing a beautiful old home being restored and passing along to a new generation of owners some knowledge about the heritage of the community. They are regular citizens and your neighbors. So treat them just like you would if they were coming over to your house for tea and cookies.

People ask me why we need historic districts. We don’t. No community needs an HDC. However, it is reported nationally that a home in a historic district is generally worth 20% more at resale then a similar home outside the district. So as much as you want to complain about the HDC, when your house is on the market for just two days before it is sold, remember it is because you live in a historic district that makes your house so desirable.

Still, the HDC can do more to help citizens. In Ypsilanti, they should publish a welcome kit and historic district guidelines that are sent to every new property owner. They also should have an early session once a month that meets for 30 or 45 minutes before the regular session. This early session should be an informal meeting where people can come in and ask questions or present a study item that requires no action.

The HDC can also speed up meetings by spending less time trying to help or correct deficiencies of a proposal during the meeting. If the proposal doesn’t meet the guidelines, the HDC should delay approval and then give the applicant two options. One, they can wait until the end of the meeting where they can come back and talk further about their project or they can meet with board or city staff members at a later date and then come back at the next HDC meeting.

Often I see the HDC trying to help people pick colors or order a door from a catalog. That desire to be helpful often prolongs the meeting for everyone else that is there trying to get a proposal approved. It is human nature to want to help someone that is struggling. Undertaking a restoration of an old home is no easy feat. Yet the board meeting is not the right place to try to teach someone the difference between a sill and a sash.

Board members also need to be careful to not interject personal opinion into decisions. I have been to a number of meetings over the last three years and sometimes I see perfectly acceptable proposals denied for what seems more that the board members didn’t like the color or shape, rather then based on whether or not the proposal would have been appropriate for the time period or style of the house.

HDC’s are not perfect but then nor are some homeowners. If we can remember that we are all neighbors and friends trying to improve our community and make it a desirable place to live, then perhaps the HDC experience will be more pleasant and less confrontational. Of course, if you still find that your project is still not approved, you could always tell them that you are taking back the cookies.

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