Wednesday, October 4, 2023

Not Yet Final On Vinyl: Williamsburg Weighs Whether to Change Historic Preservation Rules

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WILLIAMSBURG–The city’s Architectural Review Board (ARB) has been engaged in a years-long process of updating its guidelines to give homeowners in certain districts more flexibility when it comes to improving, repairing, and preserving their homes.

But the work they’ve done has not gone far enough for the City Council, which reportedly discussed the code revisions they want in closed session, leading one ARB member to resign.

The changes – allowing vinyl siding and vinyl windows in three of the city’s four preservation districts – “are in conflict with the overarching principles of preserving the historical fabric and attractiveness of Williamsburg,” wrote ARB member Ken Gross in his April 17 resignation letter. 

“I find the actions of the City Council taken on April 13, 2023 regarding the draft Design Review Guidelines to be unacceptable for me to continue conscientious service on the board,” he wrote. “Further, I am alarmed that this decision was made in the darkness of an executive session without Architectural Review Board or public input.”

At a work session on June 26 to continue work on the revisions, the ARB continued to struggle with the city council’s directive since it would imperil the city’s designation as a “certified local government” (CLG).

Being a CLG, a designation created by the National Historic Preservation Act and administered in Virginia by the Department of Historic Resources (DHR), allows a city or county to apply for state and federal grants available only to CLG locales. The home page of the DHR features a photograph of a streetscape in … Williamsburg.

“We’re Williamsburg. We sort of invented this concept. We probably ought to stay on the leading edge of this,” said ARB member Mark Kostro.

Williamsburg adopted its first historic preservation ordinance in 1946.

Every other city in Virginia with significant historical assets has the CLG designation.  The program has many goals but chief among them is to establish “credentials of quality” for preservation efforts. One of those is: no vinyl products on historic structures.

Allowing vinyl in three of the city’s four architectural protection districts would put the city’s CLG status in jeopardy, said Tevya Griffin, the city’s Planning Director.

“Charlottesville is rigid about not allowing vinyl,” Griffin said. “Smithfield, which is also in the midst of rewriting its guidelines, also frowns on vinyl products in the historic district. There have been some exceptions made for new construction.” 

Manassas, Alexandria, Staunton: no vinyl. “Not only do they not allow vinyl, they require a retrofit back to wood,” Griffin said. “Everyone we heard from said the same thing. No one allows vinyl.”

The ARB thought it had gone far enough with revisions by rewriting the code to allow for the use of vinyl in Architectural Preservation Districts 2 and 3 and the Corridor Protection District.

The ARB slotted every structure in those districts into two categories (with very clunky names). If the architectural features of the building are relevant to the historic character of the neighborhood, the building is considered “contributing.” If they aren’t, the structure is “non-contributing.”

Contributing structures will continue to be subject to the ARB’s most stringent preservation rules. But if a house has been labeled “non-contributing,” meaning it doesn’t add to the historic character of the neighborhood, the property owner may be able to make a repair with a previously forbidden vinyl product because they will be allowed to use the same materials as new construction does.

In Architectural Protection district one (which includes Colonial Williamsburg, the College of William & Mary, and Peacock Hill), 85 percent of the structures were designated “contributing.”

But in AP 2 and AP 3, the percentages were closer to half – 53 percent considered “contributing” in AP 2, and 48 percent in AP 3

“This is a substantial change,” Kostro said. “We’ve opened up 50 percent of the housing stock to materials that were previously prohibited.”

Though ARB members still think this will allow some people to use “substandard” materials, they thought the approach would address the concerns of City Council members, who, according to Griffin, are getting complaints from property owners about the ARB’s too-strict standards.

“The City Council agrees that adding the contributing and non-contributing designations significantly improves the guidelines,” Griffin said. “What they are asking for is that structures in AP 2 and 3, and CP be provided with some vinyl options. They want to see if you can take it a step further.”

At the heart of the issue is whether existing guidelines help or hinder property values. Though the majority of the board has expressed the belief that architectural preservation rules protect property values, board member Linda Berryman, a real estate agent, said they can also sometimes discourage investment.

“When a house is historic, the number of buyers is reduced,” she said. “When people find out it’s historic and they won’t be able to change anything, they walk away. I think that’s what the City Council is hearing.”

Still, other board members appeared unmoved by that argument. Allowing vinyl “would make the (guidelines) inconsistent with state standards and that’s a problem,” said board member Chris McDaid. “Sometimes the answer is no. They asked us a question and the answer is no.”

The board did not take action at the June 26 meeting, at which several members, including chairman Scott Spence, were absent. A second work session is scheduled at 6 pm July 24.

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