New group aims to protect Dilworth growth


by ELISABETH ARRIERO / The Charlotte Observer

Posted on September 27, 2013 at 9:42 PM

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Some Dilworth residents who are frustrated with Charlotte’s Historic District Commission recently formed an independent watchdog group to monitor how the city approves new developments in their neighborhood.

Members of the newly formed Preserve Historic Dilworth say they’re concerned with what they claim is the inconsistent way the commission applies historic district guidelines to project proposals. Such decisions are corroding the historical integrity of the neighborhood, they say.

Since its inception several months ago, the group has unsuccessfully appealed at least two decisions by the Historic District Commission.

Preserve Historic Dilworth is not affiliated with the Dilworth Community Development Association, which is a 501c3 homeowners group that covers all of Dilworth, not just the historical section.

John Phares, a Preserve Historic Dilworth member, said the group has more than 70 members and is growing. The group is also governed by a five-member steering committee, of which Phares is chairman.

“We are an advocacy organization and monitor Dilworth applications presented to the Historic District Commission,” said Marcia Rowse, a steering committee member for the group, in an email. “The staff and commission, in our opinion, have become lax in their responsibilities and are allowing projects to be built that are not in keeping with their own guidelines.”

The city’s Historic District Commission oversees six of Charlotte’s most significant older neighborhoods, which have been designated by City Council as local historic districts. Those neighborhoods are Dilworth, Hermitage Court, Plaza Midwood, Fourth Ward, Wesley Heights and Wilmore.

The 12-member Historic District Commission and its staff work with property owners and businesses in the districts to ensure that development and renovations are consistent with the character of the neighborhood.

But John Howard, the administrator for the commission, said relations with some Dilworth residents have become strained over the last year and a half.

“There’s a lot of gray, a lot of subjectivity in our guidelines because architecture is like art, it’s very subjective. What I like may not be what someone else likes,” he said. “So we’re trying to figure out exactly what we need to do from staff’s point of view to fix or update the guidelines.”

Rowse said the residents want consistency in how the commission approves or denies projects.

“Because the commission fails to consistently apply their guidelines to their decisions, it has created problems for the applicant and the neighbor alike,” she said.

Since its inception in the 1890’s, Dilworth has become a distinctive Charlotte neighborhood.

Developed as the city’s first suburb, Dilworth was connected to downtown by Charlotte’s first electric streetcar. The success of the initial development of Dilworth led its creator, Edward Dilworth Latta, to expand the neighborhood in the 1910s.

In 1987, Dilworth was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Now, anyone who wishes to renovate their home or construct a new property in Dilworth must first receive a certificate of appropriateness from the Historic District Commission that confirms that the project will blend with the historic area.

In June, the historic district commission granted a certificate of appropriateness to two new home projects.

Preserve Historic Dilworth appealed the commission’s approval to the Zoning Board of Adjustment, contending that the projects were too big for the lots and that they did not uphold the historical integrity of the community, said city attorney Thomas Powers.

The two projects are a two-story Georgian-style home at 922 East Park Ave. and another two-story home at 1003 Romany Road.

Powers represented the Historic District Commission in the case.

On Sept. 24, the Zoning Board of Adjustment denied both appeals with a 5-0 vote.

The appeals were struck down mostly because Preserve Historic District was not considered an affected party that could claim actual injury, said Powers.

“They lacked the standing to challenge the decision,” he said.

Will Phipps, the property owner and builder for the home on East Park Avenue, said he wishes the process would have gone faster with both the Historic District Commission and the appeal.

Before he received a certificate from the commission, Phipps said he had to make a number of changes to the home, including changing the roofline, which lowered the ceilings in the attic area, he said.

But he and his wife are satisfied with the final plans of their 5,196-square-foot home, he said.

He also said that throughout the appeals process, he was less worried about the outcome as he was about how much time it was going to set back his construction plans.

“The appeal itself was always something looming that we had to go through and a huge time suck and it was frustrating,” he said. “But I never thought the appeal was going to go anywhere because there wasn’t a whole lot of arguments.”

Dilworth residents said they’re still learning about Preserve Historic District’s mission and trying to determine how it fits in with the neighborhood’s existing hierarchy.

”We’ve got this group that says they represent a neighborhood, and some say they don’t,” said Howard. “DCDA (Dilworth Community Development Association) is known to be an official organization and is recognized by state. They’ve been around for years and procedurally they do it the right way. This other group is a little different. Who their members are and what their bylaws are, I don’t know.”

Kevin Deter, who is president of the Dilworth Community Development Association, said the association has discussed whether to bring Preserve Historic Dilworth under its umbrella but has not made a final decision.

“It’s obviously something that we are working to address but we haven’t really decided the best way to do that,” he said.