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Monday November 29th

Community members dissatisfied with Historic District Commission

<p>Some residents who own properties in the Historic District&nbsp;are upset with how the district is run and the lack of representation they feel in the decision making process for home projects.&nbsp;</p>
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Some residents who own properties in the Historic District are upset with how the district is run and the lack of representation they feel in the decision making process for home projects. 

Residents of Chapel Hill’s Franklin-Rosemary Historic District are calling for change in the Historic District Commission due to ongoing tensions over home-improvement projects throughout the district. 

Some homeowners and landowners, such as Gwen Knauff, who has lived in the district for four years, feel the commission’s process for approving or denying community projects is often biased and based on personal interests. HDC positions are appointed rather than elected, leading these residents to believe the commission has become an exclusive group that isn't representative of the district as a whole. 

“It’s an abuse of power, and someone needs to call it,” Knauff said.

Knauff said the high expenses of revising architectural plans after a proposal is denied has made her hesitant to plan home-improvement projects altogether.

“Builders don’t want to come to the area because they don’t want to deal with this,” Knauff said. “It’s made everyone mad at each other.”

Knauff said if she'd known how difficult it would be to make approved changes to her home, she would have reconsidered moving to the neighborhood. She said clearer communication strategies by the HDC and a wider variety of commissioners would help solve the problem.

“The commission really needs to establish real and true guidelines (for home projects) that are relevant to today, and to have a committee who lives by that,” Knauff said. “We want the system to be better.”

Chaya Tanna, another resident of the Franklin-Rosemary District, agrees that change is necessary. 

“It’s not that I don’t appreciate trying to preserve the historic district — we want that,” Tanna said. “(But) the commissioners are supposed to be representing the community.”

Tanna said that despite being financially invested in the community, property owners in the district do not always have their voices heard when decisions are being made. One of the topics residents feel most strongly about is ensuring that the commission adheres to its ethics guidelines, which forbid conflicts of interest. Some residents feel the guidelines have been violated by commission members who did not recuse themselves from situations in which they had a conflict of interest. 

HDC board member and former historic district resident Alan Rimer, who joined the commission due to his dissatisfaction with its proceedings during his residence, addressed residents' concerns about ethical procedure. 

“We try be very reasoned and not capricious,” Rimer said, “But nothing is perfect.”

Decisions that are determined to be unfair assessments can be overturned by the Board of Adjustment, Chapel Hill’s only other quasi-judicial committee. However, Rimer said that some of the problems he struggled with as a homeowner years ago have yet to change. 

Bill Raynor and his family have been trying to get plans approved by the HDC to build a home for their family of six in the Franklin-Rosemary District, but they feel they haven't gotten closer to their goal since they began submitting applications to the commission in April 2016.

Raynor said he has not been given valid reasons from the HDC for making him reconstruct his home plans multiple times, and that the commission is misrepresenting the goals of the community at large.

“Every design has been harmonious with the neighborhood,” he said. “The minority is acting as a majority.”

Rimer said the HDC is seeking measures to mend the divide. In addition to giving attention to revised project guidelines, Rimer said the commission held a workshop in January where they reviewed rules and procedures for handling project applications, and practiced proper ways to make decisions of approval or denial.

Rimer also said the HDC created a flyer to give out to realtors, informing potential homebuyers of necessary measures to take when making exterior changes to historic homes.

Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger said she has met with the commission’s chair and the town manager, and that an attorney has been added to the process in an effort to resolve individual cases. 

“We take this very seriously,” Hemminger said. “The guidelines are not as clear as they need to be.”

Hemminger said that while the town wants to achieve its goal of preserving its historic districts, she recognizes that changes must be made to homes to accommodate changing times.

Until changes are made, some landowners of the historic districts must find alternative living situations while waiting for their projects to be approved. Raynor said that regardless of whether or not he received notice of home improvement measures before buying his lot, there is a bigger problem at hand.

“This has nothing to do with notice and everything to do with a broken process," he said.

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