Sitting on the Historic District Commission

In an interview aired on National Public Radio recently, Magazine Editor Hall-of-Famer Tina Brown described her desk-on-a-treadmill, noting, “Sitting is the new smoking.”

That shot a little dart of fear in my heart, because my role as a Town Council member requires me to sit a lot. Council meetings, work sessions, committees, task forces and liaison to advisory boards and commissions must be conducted sitting down. If I were to pace around á la Donald Trump, I would creep people out every bit as much as he did at a candidates forum.

One of the longest stretches of sitting comes at the Historic District Commission, for which I am council liaison. Its meetings routinely run five hours, sometimes more. Most commissioners have put in a full day of work before they arrive at 6:30, then pull the equivalent of a second shift at the meeting, only without a lunch or bathroom break.

So when council put forth a resolution to make some changes to smooth the process, HDC commissioners were excited by the opportunity. The resolution needed some tweaking, and fortunately, the chair of the HDC, along with a historic preservationist and a few council members, had suggestions.

First, the 40-year-old Historic District Guidelines need to be updated. People who can afford to buy historic district homes today live differently than people who bought in the 1970s. They want to update their homes in ways that are inconsistent with the guidelines, yet HDC commissioners are charged with upholding the guidelines.

Next, before accepting an application, staff must review that the application is complete — and reject it, if it is not — and state why a reapplication is sufficiently different to merit a second look.

Conflicts have come when an application for construction, renovation or demolition is dropped off at Town Hall shortly before an HDC meeting. Applicants believe the 180-day time limit for commissioners to render a decision begins when the application is delivered to Town Hall, but commissioners believe the clock starts only when the application is deemed complete.

The 180-day clock needs to stay in place until some of the other process changes kick in. Shortening it to 120 days, as some council members support, hurts applicants who want to make changes but need time for their architect to draw a solution.

Even those of us who don’t live in historic districts enjoy the benefit of being able to walk through those lovely, gracious neighborhoods. People who can live anywhere in the world sometimes choose Chapel Hill because of its charm. They could afford a big house anywhere in town, but some choose a historic district. And some then apply to the HDC to demolish a piece of the collective charm that drew them to the neighborhood in the first place. At some point, that demolition will reach a critical mass.

We need to support our historic district commissioners so that their job is not untenable as it often is now. Discussions will proceed more briskly, and meetings will be shorter. Less sitting will benefit applicants and commissioners alike.
— Nancy Oates

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