The recent letters to the editor of Connie Bull and Barry Price present well-reasoned and researched opinion on the issue of the Historic District that has been sorely lacking in much of the discussion so far. Their letters raise several points that I hope I can clarify or more fully develop.
To further the goals of historic preservation, Georgetown enacted a Design Review Ordinance during the mid-1970s. The purpose of the ordinance is:
a. To protect, preserve and enhance the distinctive architectural and cultural heritage of the City of Georgetown as part of the educational and patriotic heritage of future generations;
b. To promote the cultural, economic and general welfare of the people of Georgetown;
c. To foster civic pride;
d. To encourage harmonious, orderly and efficient growth and development of the City of Georgetown;
e. To strengthen the local economy; and
f. To improve property values.
The aim of the ordinance is “that by encouraging a general harmony of style, form, proportion and material between buildings of historic design and those of contemporary design, the City’s historic building district will continue to be a distinctive aspect of the City and will serve as visible reminders of the significant historical and cultural heritage of the City of Georgetown and the State of South Carolina.”
First of all, I think we should stop using the term “historic preservation” in favor of “heritage conservation.” To preserve means to fix at a point in time — in effect, to remove something from history. Our goal should be managing change, not stopping change. Heritage conservation is about managing change — planning — based on the inherited culture and cultural artifacts of a place. It is about the individuality and uniqueness of place.
As both Mrs. Bull and Mr. Price point out, much change has occurred in Georgetown with the passage of time. Some very old and significant buildings such as the Kaminski House and the Georgetown County Museum building have been substantially altered over the years. Many have also been destroyed. We can only imagine the impact on Front Street if the Bank of Georgetown building at Broad and Front had been preserved.
We have tended to overlook the reason we have a historic district. The point is not to make individual houses museum pieces. If that was the point, we could just recognize individual structures and apply the rules just to them. However, the philosophy of the historic district is that individual significance is subservient to the whole thing. The whole thing is a PLACE, and it is what is most important. This is why the guidelines apply to all structures within the District, not to just individual houses that are really old. This is a concept that I think has been forgotten by a lot of people today.
We cannot stop change. What we need to do is follow a process that ensures that change happens in concert with Georgetown’s values and valuables.
Mrs. Bull and Mr. Price agree that reasonable regulation of buildings in the District are necessary to preserve its character. Most people would also agree. I want to point out to those who oppose any enforcement of historic district guidelines as a violation of “property rights” that all property in South Carolina is regulated by the government. The State mandates that building codes be adopted and enforced in all cities and counties. There are fire codes, zoning laws, environmental laws, and many other layers of regulation that affect how we use our property.
The days of a property owner’s unlimited right to use his property in any manner whatsoever, if such ever existed, have long since passed. When one buys land, he purchases it subject to whatever rules and regulations apply.
There have been assertions that being in the Historic District depresses the sale of real estate. The number of properties for sale in the District is given as the proof of this. This argument ignores the reality of the national economy. I doubt there are more properties for sale in the Historic District than in any other neighborhood around here. If anything, being in the District probably enhances the value of a property.
A study was done for the South Carolina Department of Archives and History from 1995 to 1998, by John Kilpatrick of the University of South Carolina’s College of Business. This study found that being in a historic district actually enhanced property values. This study included data from Georgetown and found that historic district properties were worth 11% more than comparable properties outside the District. The study can be accessed at http://shpo.sc.gov/pubs/Documents/hdgoodforpocketbook.pdf
Another significant factor to be considered is the impact of the District on the local economy. Most visitors come here because of what is now called “heritage tourism.” A little-known fact is that Georgetown has more pre-Revolutionary War houses than either Charleston, S.C., or Williamsburg, Va. If the character of the historic district is allowed to deteriorate, we will lose this valuable asset.
Another factor is that the State of S.C. and the federal government give substantial tax credits and deductions for renovations to structures within historic districts. If we do not comply with federal and state requirements for our district, the property owners there will lose these valuable tax advantages.
As a result of complaints about the present guidelines, City Council authorized their review. Council directed staff to employ a consultant to assist in this review. Requests for proposals were advertised and sent out and the best expert for the money was hired, Terry Foley of Wilmington, N.C. Ms. Foley recently spoke to the Historic District Homeowners’ Association. As the result of some of her comments, she has been unfairly criticized by some people in various local media, people who for the most part are not disinterested and some who do not live or own property in the City . This has been inaccurate and unfair. Ms. Foley is highly qualified and experienced.
It is amazing to me that people will jump on someone who is preparing what is a recommendation without seeing what is recommended. This is a classic case of an ad hominem attack, criticizing the messenger instead of the message. By attacking the person of the supporter of a position, one tries to undermine the position itself. I would hope reasonable people will wait until they read the recommendations before reaching any conclusions about them.
Mrs. Bull expresses concern that the City may intend to dictate upkeep of houses in the District. She quotes from the Georgetown Times article about Ms. Foley’s presentation to the Historic District Homeowners’ Association. I assume this comes from a statement made at the Historic District Association meeting that the guidelines to be recommended by Ms. Foley will contain suggestions for maintenance of the older homes. That was all Ms. Foley said, that she intended to include in her proposed guidelines recommended maintenance practices, as an aid to homeowners. She did not say anything about these being rules or mandatory. Even if she did, City Council would never approve it.
Things one would do for a new home are different than what one might do for an older home. For example, I would assume that using a powerful pressure washer might not be a good idea on a two-hundred-year-old house. Please note the present guidelines contain in Appendix D basic maintenance advice. For example, Number 2 states that “All exposed wood should be kept painted or treated with preservatives.” The present maintenance advice is just that, and, if included in the new guidelines, will be purely suggested practices.
Some people have made complaints about the Architectual Review Board and its practices and procedures. One of the reasons for reviewing the guidelines is to make the ARB more user-friendly and efficient. I hope the revised guidelines will be clearer and more precise, allowing less leeway for the ARB to “negotiate” with applicants at the hearings. A proposal should meet the guidelines when made or not.
It seems the biggest complainers about the ARB are people who have moved here in the past ten years or so. I certainly welcome these “come heres.” My wife and I are “come heres,” too. I just can’t help but wonder if these people would have bought their properties if the Historic District had not been in place. Certainly the quality of life in downtown Georgetown has been substantially enhanced by the enforcement of the rules for the past fifty years or so.
Last year, Georgetown hosted a historic preservation symposium. I talked to several attendees from other old communities around the state such as Camden. They all asserted they wished their cities had had the foresight to establish protection for their historic properties when Georgetown did.
The ARB is a thankless job. I cannot say that I have always agreed with its decisions and the process it has followed has not always been what I would have liked to see. Nevertheless, I am convinced that most of its members have always acted in good faith and have tried to do the best they could. Hopefully, we will come up with some procedures in the revised guidelines that will make their job easier and applicants’ experience before the Board less burdensome.
Jack Scoville is an attorney and the mayor of Georgetown.
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