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Votes

Property Owners Want Out of Historic District

Applicants seeking removal from the Windover Heights Historic District make their case.

The Vienna Town Council voted to continue a public hearing after listening to residents who wanted their properties removed from the Windover Heights Historic District . Michael W. Covel, Jerome A. and Johanna L. Covel, and Matthew T. and Susan Y. Stich urged the council and the packed chamber audience Monday night to approve their requests, citing the inconsistency of the ordinance's application and the divisiveness the issue has caused between neighbors.

The properties in question are 130 Pleasant St., NW and 346 Windover Ave., NW, owned by Michael W. Covel; 222 Lovers Ln., NW and 224 Walnut Ln., NW, owned by Jerome A. and Johanna L. Covel; and 200 Walnut Ln., NW, owned by the Stiches.

"This whole thing has become so divisive," said Susan Stich during closing remarks. "It's sad, its gutwrenching. Please do the right thing."

Her neighbor, Jerome "Jerry" Covel, agreed, "Why you insist on keeping me in it, it confounds me."

Jerry Covel argued his case with a presentation and pictures of houses in the district, questioning their historic value and significance.

"The council thought it would stop commercial. It failed," said his first presentation slide. "I want out of the Historic District, and I want out tonight."

SAYING THAT HE was "conned" into supporting the district as an original supporter during its 1979 inception, Jerry Covel added that he asked to be let out of the district in 1985 and 1992.

When he presented photos of houses in the district, he posed rhetorical questions such as, what is architecturally significant about the house, who lived there, and what historic events had occurred on the property. He further pointed out that several nearby properties, such as the West End cemetery, the Freeman House, Louise Archer Elementary, a 1941 house, and the Sons & Daughters Cemetery, had historic significance but were not included in the district.

"The district is 100 percent abuse of property rights. It's an abuse of power," said Jerry Covel's summary slide.

Councilwoman Maud Robinson countered that several of the properties pictured did have historical significance because prominent citizens had lived or worked on those properties, and submitted to the council a brochure from the annual Walk on the Hill describing the neighborhood.

"I do think there is some history and merit" for the Historic District, Robinson said.

Jerry Covel's son, Michael "Mike" Covel, then presented arguments citing the inconsistency to which the ordinance for the district has been applied, as well as the lack of an inventory of homes in the district.

"Bottom line, there are no rules. There are only precedents," Mike Covel said, after remarking that he analyzed 225 documents regarding the district.

Mike Covel added that because the application of the ordinance has been inconsistent whenever homeowners sought approval for their building projects or additions, the historic district should be voluntary. He argued that historic districts in other parts of the country have become voluntary because of similar conditions.

"If this council doesn't do the right thing in this forum, we'll settle this in another forum," Mike Covel said.

SUSAN STICH SAID she doubted her request would get approved, but argued that a survey of the homes in the historic district would include homes built in 2000 and 2003.

"Prove to me that you're actually listening to our evidence and our concerns," said Stich, who added that besides reading the information Mike Covel had gathered, she had researched on other historic districts and was a history major in college.

The meeting then opened up to comment from citizens. The eight citizens who spoke ranged in opinion, unlike the over 20 citizens who spoke out against the removal their properties during the town Planning Commission held earlier in the year.

Frank Lillis, one of the original conceivers of the district, argued that the intent of the district is for preservation of the neighborhood, so houses built during different time periods should be considered.

"This is a district to preserve a neighborhood and community…This is not a museum. It is a living, breathing neighborhood that withstood the test of time," Lillis said.

Fellow citizen Chuck Anderson agreed, adding that he saw a museum exhibit in Cleveland that highlighted Euclid Avenue, a street that had once shown historic significance but no longer does because of present development on the street.

"What made it famous was its coherence," said Anderson of Euclid Ave. "Coherence is key to restoring a historic neighborhood."

Vienna resident Bob Leggett spoke against the Windover Heights Board of Review, recounting his experience before the board in 1999, when he sought to build a house in the historic district. He cited the experience as unpleasant.

"What we were confronted with was a room full of inhospitable people," Leggett said, recalling that the board had disapproved their application because they said the house was too big. "In our view, the board and its charter is in need of serious review."

Vienna resident Paul Layer asked both parties to consider a compromise, having lived in the town for nine years and knowing friends on both sides of the issue. Layer cited Benjamin Franklin's proposal in 1775 to create the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, which served as an example for compromise for states' rights.

"I do, however, believe there is a process by which solutions can be found…I urge all parties involved to find that compromise," Layer said.

After asking the applicants throughout the hearing if they knew about the history of their properties, councilwoman Laurie Cole passed a motion for the public hearing to continue until the council meets again on Sept. 22, in order to allow citizens' written comments to be submitted for the record. The council and Vienna mayor Jane Seeman unanimously approved the motion.

"I think there's a lot here to assimilate and reflect on," Cole said.