How should York City's historical-preservation law work?

Sean Philip Cotter

The brick building is old, and the facade needs some work. In one place, a window has been "fixed" — in the loosest sense of the word only — with part of a tin can, the owner says.

The area bounded by the blue line is York City's historical district, where any facade changes have to get the OK from the city's historical review board and council.

But it's one example of several on the block with that classic York City look: brick, in this case painted red, with intricate wood cornice and windows bracketed by gray-blue lintels.

Mark Lentz bought the building in the 300 block of East Market Street for $20,000 with the intent to make it again a place where people can live. That would involve installing bunch of new windows, so, as is required by city ordinance, he took that request to the city's Historical Architecture Review Board, which offers advice to the York City Council on the appropriateness of construction and renovation projects within the city's historic core.

And then he was dismayed when they unanimously voted to recommend that council turn him down. Dennis Kunkle, HARB's chairman, told The York Dispatch that Lentz wanted to put in windows with vinyl grids inside the glass, which would be "so unhistorical."

So then Lentz took his appeal to city council last week, telling the members that the windows he'd have to get to satisfy the board would cost close to the value of the home.

"We payed $20,000 for the house," Lentz told council. "So $14,000 for windows out front seems unreasonable."

And council members agreed. So, for the second time in a couple of months, council overrode HARB; the members gave Lentz the OK to move ahead with the windows he wanted, which he said would cost about $7,000.

Here's how the ordinance behind HARB works: People who own property in the city's historical district around the middle of town have to receive "a certificate of appropriateness" before they go ahead with any changes to the building's facade. If they're doing work that needs a permit, they can't get the permit without first getting that certificate. The first step is going to HARB, which uses consultants to look into the request and then make a recommendation to the board. During public meetings that normally occur on the first and third Thursdays of the month, the board then votes on the requests before it. The board, composed of volunteers, is merely an advisory body, though — its recommendations to allow or deny the requests have to get city council's OK, which they normally do.

After overriding HARB this time, though, a couple of council members voiced some institutional concerns with the ordinance that created the historical district, saying there are better ways to strike the balance between preserving the historical architecture that makes York City unique and making economic development as straightforward as possible.

Vice president Michael Helfrich raised the idea of revisiting the ordinance behind HARB, a law last tweaked in 2014.

The day after that council meeting, he said he's thinking about rewriting much of the ordinance from scratch. Helfrich envisions a tiered system where the top rung would be properties that should maintain "100 percent historical integrity." The second tier would hold structures the city believes to be important, but people can put in modern windows and doors to make livable.

The lowest tier would be for buildings where the city merely wants the structure to remain, but most changes or improvements could be done to it.

He believes this setup would make the board's job easier, giving it more leeway to strike the delicate balance between retaining the city's historical properties and keeping as many doors open for economic development as possible.

Kunkle, who was appointed to HARB on the recommendation of the York County Heritage Trust, where he's the facilities manager, said an overhaul of the ordinance to change to a tiered system would require "a lot of work on somebody’s part" to triage the properties individually into the various tiers. But even if it did happen, he said, it would not change much the way the board handles cases.

"We already do treat them on a case-by-case basis," Kunkle said.

For example, if people want to replace slate shingles with asphalt ones, and everyone on their block has already done the same, HARB isn't going to punish those people for following the rules and coming to them, he said.

"Some city council members view us as an undue burden on the homeowner," he said. "But we attempt to work with the homeowners to try to find a midway."

Councilman Henry Nixon said the current historical district is "entirely too large." While he sees the value in maintaining iconic York City fixtures such as the Doctor's Row block of West Market Street, there's a great deal of property in the district that isn't that noteworthy, and some that's entirely new, but still has to abide by the HARB process.

He too supports a tiered system, one which still would strictly protect some of the most notable properties, but would allow more leeway for the board and council on other locations, Nixon said. He also floated the idea of allowing would-be developers and homeowners with their eyes on lower-rung properties simply pay a bit extra for the building permit in exchange for loosened restrictions.

"There needs to be a balance between historic preservation and economic development," Nixon said.

Right now, though, neither HARB nor council actually is supposed to take economic development into account at all in these deliberations.

The current ordinance says the HARB should consider "the effect of the proposed change upon the general historic and architectural nature of the district." It says this applies only to changes to the exterior of the home from the street or a public right-of-way, such as the sidewalk. The ordinance continues on to say the board should be mindful of "the general design, arrangement, texture, material and color of the building or structure"  in the scope of the block or area as a whole — the board should look at the building in relation to the other buildings around it.

And, it continues: "Council shall not consider any matter not pertinent to the historical aspect and nature of the district."

So that means neither HARB nor council should take economic factors into account. But, practically, the process can't exist in a vacuum.

"While we’re not supposed to consider the economics of it, we still do," Kunkle said.

For example, they do sometimes let people replace aging wood with composites that look like it because those need less maintenance, he said.

"We violated the secretary of the interior’s directive," he said wryly.

There are a couple of changes Kunkle would like to see in the ordinance. Mainly, he wants there to be a better mechanism for the city to fine people who ignore the HARB ordinance and make facade changes without the city's approval. Right now, there is language in the ordinance to that effect, but Kunkle said it requires the city to jump through a bunch of hoops, and he doesn't know of any time when anyone has been fined for it.

"It's like an honor system, almost," Kunkle said. Both Helfrich and Nixon also talked about giving the ordinance "more teeth."

And, in order for that to be fair, Kunkle said he wants there to be more ways that the city lets people know when they're in the historical district. If the city made it so every owner has to be notified when they close on a property, there'd be no reasonable excuse for people to say they didn't know they had to go through HARB, Kunkle said.

— Reach Sean Cotter or on Twitter at@SPCotterYD.