City seeks update of historic guidelines

Published 9:30 pm Wednesday, March 13, 2019

More than 60 people turned out at City Hall for a meeting Wednesday with consultants who are helping to revise the design guidelines to Suffolk’s Historic Conservation Overlay District.

Paige Pollard and Katie Paulson with the Commonwealth Preservation Group led a discussion on what people wanted to see in the design guidelines, which were last updated in 2009.

The original version of the guidelines was published in 1990, updated in 1999 and expanded to address the commercial area more intensively, according to city spokeswoman Diana Klink.

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In the new downtown Suffolk master plan adopted by City Council in June 2018, the review and improvement of regulatory processes was identified as an implementation strategy, Klink said.

The Commonwealth Preservation Group has already surveyed stakeholders — city staff, business owners, residents, arts groups and others in the historic downtown area — and it noted in a presentation the following common concerns:

  • Lack of public awareness about the boundaries, goals and expectations of the Historic District — outreach and marketing needed for current and potential residents and businesses
  • Design guidelines are difficult to understand and cumbersome to use, can be too restrictive and take a one-size-fits-all approach
  • Perception that district regulations and design guidelines are not being applied consistently by staff and the Historic Landmarks Commission
  • Added cost to property owner, including application fees, review time and compliance
  • Process for administrative review and additional opportunities to apply it
  • What’s the benefit of owning property or doing business in the Historic District — what’s in it for me? What’s in it for Suffolk?

“This is a pretty tight set of comments that we saw across the board that we heard from stakeholders,” Pollard said.

During the meeting, residents outlined concerns with preserving the heritage and keeping a friendly downtown vibe, while also making the process more user-friendly for people trying to meet compliance with Historic District regulations. Others noted that it can be cost-prohibitive to have their homes or businesses in compliance.

About a dozen people raised their hands when asked whether they had faced difficulties in the Historic Landmarks Commission process.

Councilman Mike Duman said it should be easier for people to make investments downtown.

“If the process is too difficult and too expensive, then that’s going to preclude a lot of people from buying those residences and renovating them from becoming an eyesore or a negative effect on the property values,” Duman said.

The consultants plan to schedule a follow-up meeting with stakeholders in early April to review the design guidelines outline, and in late June have a draft of guidelines for the city to review and provide comments. They plan to hold another public outreach meeting in late August, finish the design guidelines by late September and then hold public hearings and eventually have the city vote on the guidelines by the fall.