Historic District Inching Through County Bureaucracy

Historic Houses in Old TownOne of the most important policies relating to the future of downtown College Park continues to make its way through a convoluted approval process that involves more lawyers than College Park Residents.

When it is implemented, the Old Town Historic District will require property owners within the designated area (shown on a map here) to apply to the County’s Historic Preservation Commission for a special permit before major construction, alteration, or demolition of any buildings. It is difficult, but not impossible, for a property owner to demolish a historic structure under the county’s law. A section of the district is sandwiched between East Campus and the Terrapin Trader facility, envisioned as a potential phase three to the East Campus project.

If implemented, the policy could effectively prohibit many of the ideas discussed during the College Park charrette, such as adding new development along corridors to connect the Metro station and Downtown. Although the criteria for new construction are designed to be flexible, the Design Guidelines prepared for the area by a city contractor describes the generally low-density character of the contributing resources. At the very least it would create additional regulations for any property owner seeking to develop in the area.

After it was approved by the city and HPC in 2006 the law has been appealed twice by a group including the Prince George’s Property Owner’s Association. Under county law, appeals relating to land use are first heard by the Zoning Hearing Examiner (ZHE). After the first appeal the ZHE ordered the city to take measures to better inform property owners including signs in the Old Town neighborhood. The decision from the second appeal was released on September 26th, and both parties have appealed the decision to the County Council. The council will hear the case at 10 a.m. on Monday, November 19th in Upper Marlboro. Issues of contention in the second appeal include what standards should apply to new construction, and whether a local advisory committee should weigh in on issues not concerning existing historic buildings.

Already a controversy has arisen about the long vacant Sigma Chi fraternity house, which county officials have prohibited the fraternity from demolishing. We hope property owners, renters, and others get involved now to learn about the impact of the policy so when it is implemented there are no surprises.

> Read the ZHE’s 9-26 Decision
> Our Old Town Historic District Library Page

Historic District Nears Final Approval

Sigma Chi Frat HouseWith College Park’s Old Town Historic District nearing final approval with county officials, the first public controversy regarding a property in the district has emerged.

Historic District Hearing AnnouncementWe had previously reported that the Old Town Historic District faced an additional hearing with the Prince George’s County Zoning Hearing Examiner’s (ZHE) Office. In response to complaints from some landlords and others who object to the district, the ZHE had already ordered the city to re-post signs announcing the creation of the district in the Old Town neighborhood. After months of delay, we recently received this notice announcing the hearing will be held on Thursday, April 19th in the County Administration Building in Upper Marlboro.

The Diamondback reported that the long vacated (and burned) Sigma Chi fraternity wants to demolish their building, located at 4600 Norwich Road. The fraternity argues the structure is damaged and doesn’t fit modern student’s needs. Meanwhile, preservationists like District 3 Councilperson Stephanie Stullich argue the 1930s colonial revival structure contributes to the character of the neighborhood and can be salvaged. The county’s Historic Preservation Commission generally only permits demolitions in rare cases, but does not regulate the interior design of structures. The HPC will hear the case on April 17th at 7:00 p.m., during their April meeting where two other applications for work permits in College Park will considered, both for fences.

Once the district is approved the city will be forming a local advisory committee, so property owners interested in having feedback in the process should stay tuned.

> Library: Old Town Historic District
> View a map of the properties included in the district

Historic District Considered Near Downtown

College Park StreetcarA proposed Old Town College Park Historic District could prevent or slow new, pedestrian-scale development connecting the campus and downtown to the Metro station. The proposed district includes structures on both sides of Calvert Road, a street several groups from last spring’s design charrette targeted for dense development to create a pedestrian corridor running from the Metro station to downtown, the Knox Road area, and the campus.

If approved, the historic district would require all property owners within the district boundary — whether or not their property was identified as “historic” — to obtain a special “Historic Area Work Permit” from the County before engaging in any type of Historic Houseconstruction. Owners of “historic” properties would be eligible for tax credits/incentives on approved restoration and construction projects. When the City Council approved the nomination at their May 9, 2006 meeting several citizens spoke against the proposal, calling the additional permits that would be required a “hardship,” “headache” and “hassle,” and complaining it could be difficult to find contractors familiar with historic district restrictions. Several speakers cited a poll that found a majority of homes in the proposed district area did not want the district, although the minutes record the Old Town Civic Association submitted a letter in support of the district.

According to information provided to us by city planner Elisa Vitale, the historic district was conceived in 2000 by city officials and approved in 2004 by the county. However, she describes what happened after an appeal:

The HPC decision was appealed and the case was forwarded to the Zoning Hearing Examiner. The Hearing Examiner heard the case, and issued her decision in November of 2005. This decision upheld the designation of the area as a historic district as appropriate, but recommended that the case be remanded to the HPC due to failure of HPC staff to follow notice requirements. On March 13, 2006, the District Council heard oral arguments on the ZHE’s recommendation. On March 27, 2006, the District Council issued an order of remand and returned the case to the HPC. The HPC held a second a public hearing on the proposed district on June 1, 2006, and again voted in favor of designating the district. The HPC also adopted the revised
Design Guidelines.

However, the June 1 decision has been appealed and will return to the Zoning Hearing Examiner. They have not yet set a hearing date, although we will post here when we hear when the date is set. We imagine this issue has proven so controversial because it involves not only historic preservation but also the property values of property owners, and whether or not the number of renters will increase in the neighborhood.

To read more about the restrictions of a Historic District, see the proposed design guidelines for Old Town, or view a map of the proposed district visit the new Old Town Historic District page in our library.