Cape Charles Historic District Review Board Draws Fire for Construction Requirements

The Cape Charles Historic District Review Board rejected an application to build a garage at this home at 602 Tazewell Avenue because of the materials that would be used.

By Stefanie Jackson – When it comes to approving plans for construction in Cape Charles’ historic district, the town’s new historic district review board isn’t measuring up to the expectations of contractors and homeowners.

“In the past three months of meetings, 75% of all applicants have been denied, deferred, or given conditional approval,” and “no major projects” had been approved in two months, contractor Sean Ingram informed the town council June 20.

“All my current projects that have been denied or deferred would be approved normally and do meet all the historic guidelines,” he added.

Following the April meeting of the Cape Charles Historic District Review Board, all but one member, Susan Eidam, were replaced. Eidam now chairs the board and serves with Diane D’Amico, Edward Eichman, Kerry Shackelford, and Edward Wells.

Contractors disagree with the new board’s strict interpretation of the Capes Charles Historic District Guidelines and disapprove of the chairwoman’s conduct.

Eyre Baldwin told the town council that he was “flabbergasted” by the June 18 historic district review board meeting and the “immoral” manner in which it was run.

The Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior provides a set of standards for the treatment of historic properties and their preservation, rehabilitation, restoration, and reconstruction.

He accused Eidam of quoting the standards out of context during the June 18 meeting. “What she didn’t do was read the whole paragraph,” Baldwin said.

“It’s really dangerous when people run meetings like that. It makes it unaffordable for people invested in this town,” he continued.

Baldwin suggested, “maybe that board and the town council should raise money and buy all the property back from people who invested until that point if you’re going to make the affordability criteria overwhelming.”

He called the historic district review board’s rejection of numerous plans to build new homes or improve existing homes “throwing the baby out with the bathwater.”

The Cape Charles town council held a special meeting July 8 on four historic district review board decisions that were appealed by the applicants.

The first appeal was made by contractor Jim Schneider, who was hired to build a new single-family dwelling for the Randy Christman family at 210 Bay Avenue.

His application was denied May 21 primarily because the home was designed as a three-story structure, but buildings in the R-1 district may not exceed 2.5 stories.

A half-story is an additional story that contains half as much square footage as a full story. This is typically accomplished by designing a roof with a steep pitch.

When the application was resubmitted June 18, it was denied even though the proposed home had been reduced to 2.5 stories. The historic district review board said the “mass” of the structure was out of character for the neighborhood.

In a June 22 email to Cape Charles Town Planner Zach Ponds, Schneider said he believed the historic district review board made a decision without considering the changes he had made to his construction plans.

“I had to stop the chair in the middle of her asking for a motion (to deny the application) to request to be heard,” Schneider said.

Eidam suggested the home should have a brick exterior because eight other Bay Avenue homes are brick – even though 10 Bay Avenue homes have siding, Schneider said.

“I feel this is a board imposing personal bias rather than applying the historic district guidelines,” he said.

The second appeal was made by applicant and owner David Cobb, who was denied permission to replace old aluminum siding with vinyl siding at his home on 217 Jefferson Avenue.

A decision was deferred April 16 with the suggestion that Cobb choose an alternative siding material such as wood or Hardie board, made from a mixture of cement, sand, and wood fibers and named for its creator, James Hardie.

But the Cobbs stated in a letter that they preferred vinyl to “improve the look of our house, reduce maintenance and become more energy efficient,” to add insulation and “long-term protection against weather, salt, and sand.”

At least five neighboring families wrote letters supporting the Cobbs’ choice of vinyl siding.

A decision was deferred again May 21 to investigate what was underneath the aluminum siding; it was wood siding that appeared to be in repairable condition.

The Historic District Guidelines do not require siding made of natural materials, but they “strongly suggest removal of synthetic sidings and restoration of the original siding material.”

The third and fourth appeals were made by Heather Behrens, Ingram’s office manager.  The contractor was denied permission to build a garage at 602 Tazewell Avenue and a new single-family dwelling on Lot 96 on Washington Avenue.

Both applications were denied because the projects would have incorporated materials such as AZEK, which the historic district review board deemed inappropriate.

AZEK is a brand of building material made to resemble wood, but it’s actually vinyl. It’s popular for building decks, but the company also sells siding and trim. The siding is not thin like traditional vinyl siding. It’s as thick as a wooden board, and it can be cut and fastened like wood siding.

The Historic District Guidelines state, “consider using wood as the dominant cladding and decorative material for new construction,” but this does not mean the use of wood is required, the town planner said.

The town council granted all four of the appeals presented July 8.

Eidam disagreed with their decisions.

“If we’re going to do the right thing by the community, if we want to live in a historic district that we can be proud of, that attracts tourists, that attracts investors and economic vitality, we’re not going to get there by having a bunch of vinyl” and other synthetic material and trim on the historic district homes, she said.

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