German Village Gazette

Village Notebook

Preservation has been essential theme in German Village

The German Village Society has spent the summer months diving into a conversation about preservation.

What does it mean to preserve a structure or an area? Who can serve as caretakers?

What guidelines or laws are in place to help us carry out our mission of retaining the unique character of our neighborhood?

I'm struck by the poetry of carrying on an investigation of our closest values during the 50th anniversary year of the German Village Commission.

In 1963, the city of Columbus created the German Village Commission (at the Society's urging) and imbued it with design and review authority.

We had a spectacularly informative meeting and follow-up discussion during our Historic Preservation Committee meeting July 18.

The meeting responded to a petition presented to the Board of Trustees, which read in part:

"We who live in the German Village Historic District believe that the recent interpretation by the German Village Commission of the German Village Guidelines for Historic Preservation has not been complementary to the historic integrity of the architecture of the original houses in German Village."

Historic Preservation Committee Chairman Chris Hune brought to the meeting a panel of experts who have been shaping the commission and the guidelines almost since the beginning:

Former Commissioner Ann Lilly; a leader in the effort to formalize and print the guidelines Connie Swain; and a contemporary former GVC Chair Cheryl Hacker.

I learned how far we've come, and that the process of protecting our architecture is ongoing -- never set.

Ms. Lilly talked about how during her tenure on the Commission from 1974-88, there were no written guidelines so commissioners had to be fluent in other city code and briefs written by the Secretary of the Interior.

That's a far cry from today's reality of having specific preservation guidelines for the district, and a city staff dedicated to the issue.

Ms. Swain said the flurry of excitement and activity in German Village in the 1980s, as residents rose to fight the transformation of homes into office space and as many folks were dividing up lots and creating additions to their homes, prompted the need for some public education.

Villagers knew they were doing well, while experiencing some growing pains, but wondered what other historic districts were doing to keep the momentum.

Ms. Swain was on the committee that created Heritage America -- a consortium of the nation's historic districts (GVS found 266 at the time and talked to most of them).

GVS hired experts to assess what was going well and what needed redirection in German Village. Two of the experts' top findings were the need for a historic preservation officer to guide property owners through the process, and a set of written guidelines.

Those guidelines were published, after much research and consideration and editing, in 1989.

Ms. Hacker was chairwoman of the commission when the most recent revisions were made to the guidelines, a process the German Village Commission led over a nine-year process.

One thing that stuck out for me in Ms. Hacker's presentation was that, while we call them guidelines, they have some force of the law: if a property owner completes unapproved work, he or she can be subject to a fourth-degree misdemeanor.

With that in mind, the three current commission members in the crowd that night explained that in order to make decisions, they must consult the guidelines, zoning code and more.

Commissioners said they must look at each application coming from a place of "yes," as they try to balance guidelines against individual property rights - if they are capricious they're up against the U.S. Constitution.

So commissioners can't look at an application and simply say: "I don't like."

Every rejected application has to be grounded in real reasons for rejection.

The meeting wrapped up with Ms. Hune asking commissioners present what the group could study to really help bolster their needs.

Here are a few:

* How to deal with unforeseen construction circumstances -- if a project falls apart midstream, it can be VERY costly to get it back within compliance.

* How can a job be certified to have followed the Certificate of Appropriateness and who should patrol the neighborhood?

* How can GVS once again hire the position of historic preservation expert?

* Attend meetings! The more fluent residents are with the process, and the more engaged in each approval, the better for each of roles as caretakers.

Ms. Hune wrapped up the meeting inviting interested folks to come to the August meeting with specific action items we can tackle, if there's to be a next round of updates to the guidelines.

That meeting will be postponed by a week to 6 p.m. Aug. 22 in the Meeting Haus.

We'd love to see you there.

German Village Society Director Shiloh Todorov submitted the Village Notebook column.

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