Commissioners Concerned About HZC's Public Perception
BY SARAH R. GREGORY
Reviewing and revising acceptable design guidelines for properties in Greeneville's Historic District and finding ways to improve the public's perception of the Greeneville Historic Zoning Commission were topics of discussion at the conclusion of Tuesday's commission meeting.
After completing all items of business on the meeting's agenda, Historic Zoning Commission Chairman Sarah Webster asked, as she typically does, if there were any other issues board members would like to address.
Commissioner Melinda Hickerson questioned if revisions to Historic District guidelines were still in the works.
The question initiated a larger, yet relatively brief, discussion of how to present such guidelines to the public, and ways that commissioners could change what they perceive as an unpopular opinion of the Historic Zoning Commission held by the general public.
REVISE EXISTING GUIDELINES?
Commissioner Roger Hankins, an architect, said that he had been working on the design guideline revisions "intermittently" for a period of time but said he would support an effort by someone else to complete the project.
He said the undertaking was "a quagmire no matter which way you go, because there is no enforcement that's ever going to be legislated through our government, so whatever stipulation you write has to be so ambiguous as to let anything pass [the Historic Zoning Commission]."
"But maybe if we had some guidelines that we as members of the board were able to look at ourselves," Hickerson said, with Webster and Hankins simultaneously responding that design guidelines for Greeneville's Historic District do exist.
"But you were redoing them," Hickerson noted.
"But that doesn't say that there are no guidelines," Hankins responded.
"I guess I never -- I don't think -- got a copy of mine," Hickerson said, adding that former and long-time commissioner Betsey Bowman had several commission-related materials for her which she had not yet received.
Webster said that a copy of the guidelines was likely included in those materials.
Commissioner Noah Young said that he recently received a copy of the local guidelines and could provide a copy to Hickerson if needed.
He added that the documents were essentially "a compilation" of other guidelines -- such as the U.S. Secretary of the Interior's Standards For The Treatment Of Historic Properties and guidelines established by the State of Tennessee.
"It'd just be nice if we had something really simple that people, like myself, could understand and could read it all.
"And also, homeowners, prospective home-buyers, could read without this thick [document that] makes no sense to the common person," Hickerson said, noting that she herself had not been fully aware of all of the guidelines while previously working on her own home in the district.
"We've talked about having a presentation for Realtors also," Webster added.
The point, Hickerson clarified, was the need for something easily-accessible that would not "overwhelm" people.
CHANGING PUBLIC OPINION
"We need to do something to try, also, to change our image here in town. Maybe the newspaper could cover that -- if we did something in a positive direction to educate people," Hickerson added.
Young agreed, saying it would be a good idea "to explain why" the Historic District is important for Greeneville.
"We want people to buy in to the shared identity," he said.
"But they're not buying into it in town," Hickerson responded.
"I don't even know if they realize what the purpose [of the Historic Zoning Commission's regulation of the Historic District] is necessarily," Young said.
"The purpose to them is -- [the perception that] we're controlling their property," Charles Alter said, to agreement from others.
PRESENTING THE BENEFITS
The conversation then turned to the need to better present the benefits of protecting the Historic District.
"We need to show the other side, what the benefit is," Young said.
"If they see that their investment [in Historic District property] is protected -- that's the bottom-line," Bill Moskowitz added.
If the protections offered by the Historic Zoning Commission are not present, Moskowitz said, "you can spend $300,000 and do whatever you want [to restore a historic property], but someone can [do something next door that will seriously undermine your own property value]."
Discussion then turned to the need to help citizens understand that the commission is there to help and protect the public's interest.
"I know we mention it a lot, but we've not got anything in print that we can [use to] help people," Hickerson said, suggesting the board could provide some sort of flyer to homeowners in the historic district.
"I get told all the time how, 'me and my friends, we would never buy anything downtown because of the Historic Zoning Commission. I would never buy a business building down there, I would never buy a home ...'
"You know, I'm getting tired of defending us," she said.
"Part of our purpose is to help people," Webster said, to agreement.
"We need to be a resource for them," Young responded.
Young questioned whether the commission had any sort of recognition for exemplary restorations or renovations of historic properties.
"We don't give any kind of acknowledgment in any way to someone who does a really great job preserving something. It's all stick and no carrot," he said.
Webster said that such recognition was a good idea that deserved consideration.
WORK WITH REALTORS
Commissioner Bill Moskowitz questioned whether prospective propert-owners could approach the commission with questions before making a purchase in the Historic District.
"Can people just come here for advice and [find out] generally what we think they might have to do, so they can at least get a feel before they spend all their money on a house and are stuck?" he asked.
Webster and some other commissioners responded that prospective buyers were welcome to do so.
"Maybe that's something we should publicize with Realtors," Moskowitz suggested.
Webster noted that she sometimes receives calls from real estate agents or potential buyers with such questions.
Webster said questions about paint colors seem to arise most frequently.
"We've given them options for just about every color paint there is," she added.
Alter said that there are approximately 149 different paint colors approved for use in Greeneville's Historic District.
The number of choices, commissioners noted, was "quite liberal" for a historic district, as many other municipalities allow far fewer options in their approved color palettes.
Hankins said that such variety of color options was necessary because structures in Greeneville's Historic District span a longer time-period than in some other communties' historic areas.
Webster also said questions and confusion about types of projects that can receive expedited approval without the full Historic Zoning Commission's consideration are also frequent.
A single-page document, obtained from Town Hall by The Greeneville Sun, outlines a number of different projects and whether they require the board's approval or may be expedited, along with whether they require permits from the Building Department.
As the discussion drew to a close, commissioners discussed the possibility of everyone working on a portion of some form of consumer-friendly publication, then working together to form consensus on such material.
Hankins added that all commissioners should obtain a copy of the town's existing guidelines to read through before the board's next meeting.
"It's very hard to simplify, because once you simplify it, it's hard to enforce," he said.
Webster closed the meeting by telling commissioners to "think about this, and pull out your design guidelines and see what part you would like to discuss."
Documents obtained by the Sun from the town's Building Department distinguish two sets of design guidelines to serve as the current basis for decisions surrounding exterior renovations to properties in the Historic District.
One set of documents pertains to the Central Business District, which is defined as running from Church Street on the north along Main Street to Summer Street on the south.
The second pertains to residential portions of the Greeneville Historic District, and encompasses most of Main Street and many other streets branching off of it.