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Residents Argue Over Historic District

Residents question historic district regulations as vague and arbitrary while others claim the motive is financial.

Before a packed room in Vienna Town Hall, neighbors of the Windover Heights Historic District argued over its merits during last week's public hearing held by the Town's planning commission. While both sides agreed on the district's original, 1979 intent of preserving or maintaining an historic feel to the neighborhood known as "The Hill," they differed on how well the district has been regulated since its inception.

At the heart of the debate is the issue of individual property rights vs. the Town's desired direction regarding development. The dissenters, the Covel family and their neighbors Matthew and Susan Stich, have argued that the district's regulations and boundaries are both vague and arbitrary, and as a result, they want out. Meanwhile, their neighbors in the historic district and in the Windover Heights neighborhood counter that granting Covel's and Stich's requests to get out of the district would set up a dangerous precedent, as there is speculation that their neighbors would use their properties to construct townhomes in their single-family home neighborhood.

"The inconsistencies. The absolute inconsistencies," said Michael W. Covel, when asked by planning commission chair Sydney Verinder why he wanted his two properties to be removed from the historic district. "Borders that seem to change. A vague code."

His neighbor, Chuck Anderson, disagreed.

"It's the pattern of development, it's not the historic nails and boards," Anderson said.

As the public hearing neared its third hour, the planning commission decided to continue the hearing for another week, in order for citizens to submit written comments regarding the issue. On the table are five items, all calling for a proposed ordinance to amend the boundaries for the historic district. After the public hearing is closed, the planning commission will recommend to the Town Council either to approve or oppose the boundary change, and the Town Council will make its decision sometime this summer.

Covel defended his reasons for his request to remove his properties on Windover Ave. and Pleasant St. from the historic district. He read to the planning commission various instances where he thought the Town made arbitrary boundary adjustments. In 1991, three properties were removed from the historic district, while in 1998, a property was added at the request of the property owner.

"If you can do just anything you want with your property...what purpose is the ordinance serving?" Covel questioned.

Covel's father, Jerome Covel, said the district doesn't do the job of preserving the old cedar trees, nor does it have provisions for regulating cut-through traffic. He has lived in the neighborhood for 27 years, and restores antique tractors and toy trains as a hobby.

"I'm here because I'm concerned about my property rights, and I feel my property rights have been violated over the years," Jerome Covel said, adding that he was among half of his neighbors in the district who had signed a petition in 1991 asking to be removed from the district. Jerome Covel continued, "The problem that you have is that there are no architectural guidelines to follow. There are none."

Jerome Covel's wife, Johanna, added that although she was in the original group that called for the historic district in 1979, what resulted was not what she had originally intended.

"It's not the neighborhood we moved into. It's a totally different neighborhood," Johanna Covel said. "We did not preserve the houses that were there. We changed them."

While the Covels argued for their removal from the district, their neighbors argued for them to stay within its boundaries. Pat Brandon, president of the Malcolm Windover Heights Civic Association said that in a recent meeting where members heard the Covels speak about their applications, 56 to 4 voted against their removal from the district, with one abstaining. They did, however, recommend that the Town conduct a comprehensive review of the current ordinance.

Others who piped up at the hearing said the family had other motives for wanting to get out of the district.

"It is only being done for one reason, and that's a financial reason," said Guy Allbright, one of ten citizens who spoke against the boundary change.

Why buy 130 Pleasant St. in 2002 if Michael Covel knew about the potential problems that would arise, argued Howard Youman.

Yet some who spoke against the boundary change agreed that there could be adjustments to the current system, which could include making an inventory, conducted by professionals, of the properties in the historic district. The Windover Heights Board of Review, which ensures that district provisions are adhered, consists of five members, a professional architect, members of the Board of Architectural Review, the Planning Commission, the Beautification Commission, and one at-large community member.

"I think there is a lot of room for improvement," Anderson said. "The important thing about a historic board is its coherence."

The Planning Commission intends to make a decision on their recommendation to the Town Council by June 25, at the latest. The Town Council could discuss the issue as late as July.