Presentation to D.C. Preservation League: Lessons Learned
Sept. 25, 2009
by Richard W. Teare
Treasurer and former acting president of Historic Chevy Chase DC
The quest for a Historic District in Chevy Chase DC began with what I’ve come to think of as “the battle of 38th Street” in Dec 2003/Jan 2004. Briefly, a developer bought a rather handsome 1921 “colonial revival” house at 5209 38th St. and proposed to tear it down and erect two free-standing houses on the lot. Neighbors, led by the local Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner who was also vice-president of Historic Chevy Chase DC, objected. They raised money, hired a lawyer, and for a time blockaded the property with parked cars, so that the developer couldn’t bring in heavy equipment. The neighbors asked HCCDC to prepare and submit a historic-landmark application, which we did, and that “stopped the clock” for 90 days.
It was clear that the house, itself, did not merit landmark status, but it emerged that the lot was not large enough, under zoning regulations, to accommodate the two houses the developer wanted to build. In the face of these circumstances, the developer backed down and eventually expanded the house on a basis negotiated with the immediate neighbors.
This dust-up led HCCDC to develop the concept of a HD – originally only Chevy Chase Heights (started 1910), but Study Area was soon expanded to include other early subdivisions on both sides of Connecticut Avenue: Connecticut Ave Terrace and Chevy Chase DC, both 1907; Connecticut Ave. Park (1909); Chevy Chase Terrace (1910); and part of Chevy Chase Grove 3 (1918).
We had little difficulty raising money for the purpose: We had many individual contributions from residents of the Study Area and beyond, and grants from the National Trust for Historic Preservation; from a private foundation; and, perhaps ironically in light of later developments, from ANC 3/4G. In all, we raised and spent slightly more than $20,000 on the HD effort over the period of almost five years, early 2004 to late 2008.
Much of years 2004-2006 devoted to obtaining descriptions and photos of every one of the 950 or so structures in the Study Area. This work was conducted by a cadre of volunteers, and the results entered into a data base, brilliantly designed and managed by my colleague Dick Wattis. Meanwhile, we engaged EHT Traceries Inc., an experienced firm, to prepare a nomination of CCDC as a HD.
During the first half of 2007, we held a series of block meetings on most blocks in the Study Area, intended to convince our neighbors that a HD was a good idea. We had reasonably good turnouts, usually with one or more opponents at each, but generally civil. However, a couple of block meetings were dominated by loud, angry opponents.
Advisory Neighborhood Commissions are consulted on HD nominations, and their views are given “great weight” by the Historic Preservation Review Board. Our commission, ANC 3/4G, developed a very active interest in the matter. Our ANC has 7 SMDs; the Study Area covered substantial parts of three of them, but did not involve the other four. Of the commissioners whose SMDs were directly affected, one was a strong proponent of the HD; another, a crypto- opponent; and the third probably genuinely on the fence. Of the four remaining commissioners, three were initially disposed in favor the HD, and one was on the fence.
A side issue arose in 2006-07 when Blessed Sacrament parish bought a substantial 1926 house on Patterson St – within our Study Area – which it planned to demolish in favor of a playground. Independent proponents of the HD filed a landmark nomination for this property. HCCDC considered the case carefully, and we decided that the property was not of such intrinsic historical or architectural distinction as to warrant landmark designation. At an ANC meeting we pointed out that, if a HD already existed, demolition of a contributing structure such as this would have been prevented, but, in the circumstances, HCCDC would not support landmark designation. The HPRB turned down the nomination. We believe that the attendant controversy soured the climate for a HD, and not only among BS parishioners; at the least, it was an unfortunate distraction.
Another side issue was the Waldridge Place controversy of late 2007/early 2008, about a ramp for an elderly couple that was turned down in fact because it would have violated the Americans with Disabilities Act, but was made to appear, by a Washington Post columnist, to be an insensitive historic-preservation ruling.
At the HPRB meeting at which the Patterson St. landmark application was turned down, the nomination of Foxhall Village as a HD was approved, with an apparent very high level of support from residents of that relatively small and very homogeneous neighborhood. Several HPRB members commented favorably on the strong residential support. Clearly, the bar had been raised for any HD nomination that would follow.
At this point, want to give you some idea of the character of the debate:
A well organized group of four or five opponents of the HD implied that a HD is an élitist concept – that advocates think they know better than average home-owners what the home-owners should be allowed to do with their properties – and that, by extension, advocates of a HD are themselves élitists. I reject those contentions.
At various times the opponents stated or published these allegations, among others:
— First, a resident would have to get HPO’s permission to change the color of paint on his front door (false)
— Second, HPO applies its rules arbitrarily and subjectively and adds further delay to the already drawn-out process of obtaining a building permit (most architects and others who deal regularly with HPO disagree on both counts)
— Third, HDs cause property values to decline (false; numerous studies show that values increase more rapidly than in comparable and adjoining areas not so designated, or at worst stay even with comparable non-designated areas)
— Fourth, the HD proposal was conceived by real-estate agents for their own benefit (there were three real-estate agents on our Board, but they had no financial interest in the establishment of a HD; and how does this allegation square with the claim that HDs depress property values?)
— Fifth, HDs cause insurance rates to go up (no evidence was set forth, and some companies we consulted say it’s not true)
— Sixth, HDs set neighbor against neighbor (this may have happened in some established HDs, but I doubt that it’s a widespread phenomenon)
— Seventh, violators of HD rules face fines of $1,000 per day and jail time (it’s in the law, but, as opponents well knew, no such penalties have ever been imposed)
In sum, this was fear-mongering, pure and simple. And it worked. Some supporters of the HD were intimidated; not only would they not display yard signs, but they kept quiet about their views – they didn’t want to incur the hostility of neighbors who were opposed. There was clearly an absence of trust in the neighborhood.
A couple of statements probably contributed to these allegations by opponents of the HD: My friend David Maloney told a meeting that HPO has only two inspectors and therefore depends largely on neighbors of violators for reports of violations. And the HPRB chairman was quoted as saying that many historic-preservation decisions are, ultimately, subjective. Both statements may be true, but they didn’t help the cause.
In general, we were playing defense most of the time.
By mid-2007, our draft nomination was ready, and we shared it, in that form, with HPO and, as we had promised, with ANC 3/4G. The nomination was posted on the Chevy Chase Community Web site and elsewhere.
At this period, much of the debate was being conducted on the Chevy Chase List Serve and in the pages of the Northwest Current newspaper, and that continued the rest of the way.
On Sept. 19, 2007, HCCDC held a meeting in the CC Community Center to explain our draft nomination to our neighbors, and ANC 3/4G held what it called a “hearing” on the subject five days later. It had already elaborated plans for a survey to be conducted by mail and had incorporated into the process neighboring ANC 3E, one of whose SMDs includes about 10% of the 950-structure Study Area. The Chevy Chase Citizens’ Association was also involved in the survey, at least nominally.
At the ANC’s meeting or hearing on Sept. 24, HPO Director David Maloney unexpectedly announced that his office intended to develop “guidelines” specific to Chevy Chase DC that would apply were a HD to be created. He said HPO had been asked to prepare district-specific guidelines for existing HDs and would eventually do so, retrospectively. He estimated that this task for CCDC would take six months – that is, until approximately the end of March 2008.
I’m sorry to have to say that, so far as we can determine, the guidelines for CCDC that HPO delivered on April 1, 2008, did NOTHING to defuse opposition to the HD; the main effect was to drag the process out by almost another year, because we had agreed to the ANC’s condition that the survey would not be conducted over the summer months.
Meanwhile, in May 2008, I had a feeler from one of the leaders of the opposition, who said he was disturbed by the divisiveness the HD proposal had caused in CCDC and wondered whether the issue might be resolved by means of a zoning overlay. This was not a new suggestion. As I told our Board, I regarded this approach as hypocritical in the extreme, because it was this person and his colleagues who were largely responsible for any divisiveness in the community. Crocodile tears, in other words. And I told him that so far as I knew, a zoning overlay would not do the job, since it would not prevent demolitions and would not provide for design review. I invited him to let me know how a zoning overlay could accomplish those two functions. I never heard from him again about the overlay idea.
ANC 3/4G held another “hearing” on June 16, 2008, with 14 speakers in favor of the HD and 14 opposed, under a three-minute time limit. This event was more civil than some earlier ones.
In late summer 2008 the opponents distributed “Vote No” yard signs in the Study Area, and we, belatedly, distributed better-looking pro-HD yard signs of our own. The Post and a couple of local TV channels covered the battle of the yard signs. Both sides also canvassed door-to-door in the Study Area.
The ANC’s survey was conducted in September and early October 2008. It had an unusually high rate of return for a mail-in ballot, about 51%, and the results were overwhelming: 363, or 77.1%, opposed to the HD; 108, or 22.9%, in favor; and 3 ballots that said “No opinion.” The only portion of the Study Area that voted in favor was that stretch of 38th St between Military Rd and Harrison St, where it had all begun.
ANC 3/4G released these results on October 20, the date of a previously scheduled meeting of our Board. We quickly concluded that there was no point in submitting our nomination, and we issued a statement to that effect, which appeared in the NW Current on October 22.
Although it was fully aware that there would be no nomination, ANC 3/4G on November 10 proceeded to adopt a resolution of disapproval of the HD idea and tried to suggest that its action should constitute precedent for the future. The vote was 6-0, with one commissioner not participating – the one who had started the whole process, then had announced that he’d follow the wishes of his constituents. For my part, I told the Current that the day might come when the residents of CCDC would regret their decision.
There were a couple of glitches with the survey, but nothing serious enough to call its validity into question. However, a couple of people suggested that the survey was not a definitive rejection of the HD, because those who voted in favor and those who didn’t vote outnumbered those who voted against. That argument is specious – it’s the equivalent of saying that John McCain should be president, because his votes and the number of people who didn’t vote outnumber those who voted for Obama.
There were electoral consequences also. The ANC commissioner from 38th Street who originally proposed the HD narrowly lost his seat to one of the leading opponents of the HD, and another leading opponent defeated a leading proponent for an open seat on the ANC.
HCCDC is left with a valuable data base and the history of CCDC compiled by our contractor, Traceries. We’ve made little use of these materials, but they’re on hand, and we’d be glad to share our methodology with any group interested in establishing a HD.
So, finally, to LESSONS LEARNED. I have one for David Maloney: HPO should establish clear standards for replacing original windows and a rule about solar panels for roofs, neither of which existed as of 2008.
My other lessons are for those who may undertake to promote HDs in their own neighborhoods; many of them are implicit in what I’ve already discussed:
- start with a strong organization, which HCCDC never was
- have a cadre of committed volunteers (we had some, but nowhere near enough)
- choose your territory well (there was some initial disagreement in our case, and then some last-minute and not fully vetted changes to the map, which confused matters)
- start quickly and keep up the momentum (we didn’t do that; whereas by some estimates, a smaller and more cohesive HD might have won the approval of residents and the ANC in two years or less)
- ensure that whoever is out front in the campaign lives in the Study Area (I didn’t, and neither did my predecessor; it shouldn’t matter, but it was used against us)
- prepare materials – handouts, yard signs, FAQs and answers – on a timely basis
- don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good (we did, in preparation of some materials)
- have a cohesive, comprehensive public-education plan (we looked for a magic bullet: we did block meetings, then larger public meetings, then handouts, then a major update of our Web site, then yard signs and canvassing, but no one technique was sufficient, nor was the combination of techniques we used)
- anticipate opposition; recognize that it’s easier to be against something than to be for it
- refute lies and misrepresentations promptly and vigorously (we did a fair job of this but could have done better)
- don’t allow the process to be dragged out, whether it’s by your friends or by your enemies (we couldn’t or didn’t prevent this, and didn’t make good use of the delays)