Council majority says process was flawed
The town’s process for creating a historic district was flawed, according to a majority of Waxhaw commissioners. By a 3 to 2 vote, Waxhaw’s board rejected the district idea during their Tuesday, May 24 meeting.
“We found out how not to do something,” commissioner Phillip Gregory said. “One size does not fit all. Each side is good in its own way, each side has passion (but) there’s been too much hurt, there’s been too much distraction.”
The proposed district would have required residents to follow strict guidelines about what repairs or improvements they make to their houses. The guidelines would have banned vinyl siding, synthetic windows and synthetic shingles and required residents to use approved materials. In return, the residents could get access to grant funding to help cover the expenses. Additionally, some town officials felt a historic district was the only way to protect older structures, guaranteeing developers would not purchase the property to tear it down for apartments or retail construction.
“The reality is without a (historic) district, the town would have to rely on the goodwill of the property owner (to protect the buildings),” Waxhaw Mayor Daune Gardner said. “There is no other mechanism (by which) this body can protect its community.”
The problem for Gregory and several other commissioners was the backlash from residents living in the district, where opinion was split. Some home and business owners signed onto a protest petition, arguing the proposal violated their rights. Others embraced the idea, but there was not a consensus. Adopting the historic district, then allowing all those opposed to opt out, would create yet another problem, Gregory said, pointing out the district would look like swiss cheese.
“For (the district) to work, the people have to want it,” commissioner Joyce Blythe said. “A local designation needs to have the support of landowners in the district. It’s no wonder people feel it’s being crammed down their throats because in a sense, it is.”
In 1991, Waxhaw received a designation for the historic district from the National Register of Historic Places. Besides documenting the district’s historic status, the designation allows property owners to apply for state and federal tax credits for renovation or restoration projects. That designation however does not require the property owners to maintain the historic look of the structures.
Wanting to preserve what they consider the town’s unique character, the council in 2009 started working on its own version of a historic district, including new zoning ordinances.
In December 2009, the town hired consulting firm Circa Inc. to update the 1991 inventory of historic homes and recommend a boundary. The town also paid Hill Studios to create design guidelines governing changes to properties in the district.
The problem, Blythe and Gregory pointed out, is that the town moved to create those guidelines before asking homeowners in the affected area if they wanted it.
“We got the cart before the horse,” Blythe said.
Commissioners Erin Kirkpatrick and Brett Diller argued there had been a grassroots movement to support the district. The only change, Kirkpatrick said, is that those same volunteers and grassroots supporters are now in elected positions.
“It was a need,” Kirkpatrick said, mentioning that she and several others had worked on the project for several years.
Diller spoke about how he used to attend Waxhaw board meetings before becoming a commissioner, opposing developments that weren’t in line with the town’s image. Owner of a historic home, Diller’s property would have fallen into the proposed district.
“What kind of hypocrite would I be to tell them what to do with their property, but not me?” Diller asked.
Concerns with the state and moving forward
Supporters of the district proposal also raised concerns about a bill currently moving through the North Carolina General Assembly. Senate Bill 731 would stop towns from forcing residents to change the exterior of their property. That includes color, the type of exterior, the style of roof or the materials used in construction. The only exemptions to the rule are historic landmarks and historic districts. The bill passed its third and final reading in the Senate May 17, then was turned over to the House, which quickly passed it during a first reading. The bill was sent to the Committee on Commerce and Job Development.
Gardner and Kirkpatrick questioned if residents would feel the same way about a historic district, if the bill passed or if another historic structure was sold to a developer.
“People don’t get involved until it affects them,” Kirkpatrick said. “I hope the community learns the lesson to be involved.”
“I don’t know what I’m gonna say when we lose the next historic structure,” Gardner said. “I will be approached, saying why didn’t you do anything?”
Instead of waiting for the homes to be destroyed, Blythe said, if people are upset then they should do something now.
“Why do we wait until someone wants to do something, then we clutch our hearts?” Blythe asked, pointing out that several of the historic homes in the area haven’t been worked on in years. They have rotted floors, ravens and rats living inside, but unless someone threatens to tear them down, nobody raises a finger.
As for the town’s next steps, Mayor Pro Tem Martin Lane suggested using a different tactic. When residents have to do major repairs, they submit information to the town for a permit. When that happens, Lane said, the town could explain how the grant works.
“We say, if you’re willing to follow these guidelines, we have this grant, we’d help you pay (for repairs),” Lane said. “I think that would go a lot farther than telling people you have to do this.”