Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Sears Hill Neighborhood in Staunton, VA

Back in June, I was privileged to join a tour of the Sears Hill neighborhood here in Staunton, VA. The tour was organized by the Historic Staunton Foundation, and led by its director, Frank Strassler.

Sears Hill is one of a number of historic neighborhoods here in Staunton. There are five neighborhoods that have been designated as historic by the city, and they are subject to rules that guide how they evolve in order to preserve the historic fabric and heritage of each neighborhood. Full Disclosure: I currently serve on the Historic Preservation Commission for the city.

The name comes from a historic house which tops Sears Hill, one of many hills around the city. It overlooks downtown from the south side of the railroad tracks, and there is a historic pedestrian bridge across the tracks and down to the Wharf district. At one time the neighborhood had its own neighborhood stores and businesses in addition to the residences, and there has always been a pocket park at the overlook area. There are stone ruins of former outdoor firepit chimneys and other structures there.

One could see during the tour both the historic legacy that remains, and sense what has already been lost-for Sears Hill is not one of the designated historic districts. There is nothing to prevent cheap windows, roofing materials, siding and other materials from replacing historic materials. There is nothing to prevent whole structures from being torn down. Some have been torn down.

Recently there has been the beginning of a renaissance in the neighborhood, with group clean-ups of the park, visits by the city council, and of course, the tour that I took. Some folks in the neighborhood would like the city council to do more to help.

I am not opposed to helping Sears Hill, but the best way to ensure future prosperity is to petition the city to become a historic district. Some in the neighborhood oppose this on the grounds of their right to do as they will with their property. Obviously this is their right, but the real trade-off between their property rights and historic designation is all in their favor. Every one of the historic districts has prospered mightily since those districts were designated. Property values have risen. Tax incentives have become available for repairs, maintenance and renovation. It would be foolish to oppose this so that one would have the future option of installing vinyl windows. The preservation commission and the Historic District Laws do not prevent renovation, additions or other work to buildings in the district. They only require that such work be done in a sympathetic way to the existing historic fabric.

Some historic districts in other cities have somewhat onerous rules, but I don't believe this is the case for Staunton. I will discuss the idea of historic districts and other controls on property in the next post. In the meantime-go Sears Hill! Do it right before you lose more of the heritage you have left.