Before I begin, let me make something very clear. First, nothing within this proposal is mutually exclusive. For one part to work correctly, you need the rest. Second, it won’t cost a single taxpayer dime! I wanted to get that excuse out of the way up front.
I propose a county-wide historic landmark commission, organized under the office of the County Commission but invested with the support of the municipalities as well. Normally, every town would have their own and the county would cover what’s left, but we simply don’t have the energy or resources for seven separate commissions (New Haven, Hartford, Mason, Point Pleasant, Leon, Henderson, and the County). Luckily, the state gives the county and towns the power to form joint commissions.
This commission would be made up of six experts drawn from fields relating to historic preservation: preservation itself, history, archaeology, architecture, construction, real estate, or law. They would be appointed by the County Commission with the agreement of at least three mayors, for a 4/7 vote. The 7th member, to prevent tie votes, would be a rotating representative from the seven local governments (the six city councils and county commission). The commission would be unpaid and meet at least once a month. The only costs would be things the county already pays for, like ink for printing and normal paperwork filing fees. Together, the seven commissioners would have the following powers.
1. They would be tasked with developing a Mason County Landmarks Database, so as to include the historic resources that aren’t necessarily eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. This isn’t something new, many of the counties in West Virginia that already have a landmark commission have done the same thing. Though, unlike other counties, ours would be developed with the help of the property owners rather than simply imposed upon them.
2. After a good portion of the list is finished, the commissioners would draw up their design review guidelines for the County Landmarks. Basically, what you can and can’t do to a historic building. But, and this is important, these rules only apply to the outside of the building. The state only gives historic landmark commissions power over the outside, and because the point is to preserve the public (aka tourist) view, that’s all that’s needed. The interior remains private space that the owner can do with as they choose. Though, if the owner plans to open their home to the public (like for historic house tours around Christmas-time), they can still ask the commission for advice.
3. Once the Landmarks Database and design review guidelines are in place, any historic building owner wanting to change their building would have to come before the Commission and explain their changes. Every case, every building, is different and that would be taken into account. If the change doesn’t harm the building’s historic character, a Certificate of Appropriateness would be approved. If it would cause damage, the commission would make suggestions that would allow the change and still save the historic character. If no compromise is reached and the plan is rejected, the owner could appeal to the city zoning board if one exists, or the County Commission.
In cases of normal changes, like paint schemes and new roofs, the Commission would be very relaxed. The real focus is to prevent, for example, the destruction of the original Greek Revival porch or the original 6-over-6 windows, or in more extreme cases, the demolition of the entire building.
4. No system works if there is no punishment for flaunting the rules, and the same stands here. There would be fines, and if someone tries to ignore the commission and make a change anyway, there would be a legal requirement to undue it.
5. Finally, I understand that preservation sometimes be complicated and expensive. Because of that, the commission would also be tasked with helping owners find resources for their property if possible. That could be technical advice from professionals or the National Park Service, information on the federal and state Historic Rehabilitation Investment Tax Credits (a whopping 45 percent for commercial buildings and 20 percent for residential), or information on federal, state, or non-profit historic preservation grants.
In addition to the design-review process, the commission would also assist the County Commission in drawing up a “demolition by neglect” ordinance, as the city of Point Pleasant has already done. Too many properties are bought by out-of-towners and simply left to rot, because they want the land for development. They care nothing for our history, our community. This ordinance would require that a vacant Landmark be either used or mothballed, to protect both the building and public safety. A failure to do so will result in fines, and a demolition permit will only be granted in cases where the building is a danger to public safety, past the point of saving, as certified by a qualified inspector.
With both of these tested and time-proven proposals, a county-wide historic landmark commission and a “demolition by neglect” ordinance, we stand a chance. A chance of saving Mason County’s history for future generations, a history that we’re currently losing at a rate of over 1/5th every generation. A chance to give Mason County new life, by diversifying our economy and reinvesting in our community. A chance to make our county, our home, a better place to live. That’s a chance I think we should take.
Mason County has a strong, diverse history. It’s a history that ranges from the earliest traces of man in North America to the present day, through the empires of the Native Americans, the harrowing wars of the frontier, the regrettably overlooked decades of slavery, the industrial revolution and era of King Coal, the fights for women’s suffrage and civil rights, and everything in between. It’s a history scarred by so many disasters, but also a tale of extraordinary strength in the face of adversity. And it’s a history that is rapidly disappearing…
Chris Rizer is president of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society, reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.