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Local historic district sought

By BOB HANSEN - bhansen@newsexaminer.com

In an effort to put more objective rules into place about how downtown buildings should look, the city’s Historic Preservation Commission is trying to create a local historic district.

A public meeting about the proposal is scheduled at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 19, in Trinity Episcopal Church, 211 E. 6th St.

The proposed local historic district would include 147 properties between 3rd and 9th streets, from Grand to Eastern avenues.

Most of the area is already listed on the National Register of Historic Districts, according to Brian Durham, who becomes commission president on Jan. 1, 2019. According to a web listing of National Register sites, the Connersville Downtown Historic District goes to 4th Street, and the Canal House, on the south side of 4th, is listed separately.

Property owners within that district must obtain a Certificate of Appropriateness from the Preservation Commission before making big changes to a building’s exterior, Durham said. Building interiors are not affected.

The National Register sets some suggested standards for exterior renovation, many of which are subjective, he said. Creating a local historic district is a way of “putting some meat with those potatoes,” Durham said. “We’re trying to set some uniform rules and not discouraging people from doing things” with their property.

A consultant working as a staff person for the Preservation Commission, Jessie Russett, agrees with Durham.

“The National Register is just ‘honorary’, and opens the area to some grants,” said Russett, director of the Indiana Landmarks eastern regional office. “A local district gives some control over approval.”

A local historic district will be “an asset to the community in preserving the historic character” that downtown Connersville already has, she said. Maintaining the historic appearance of downtown buildings could lead to increases in property values and encourage tourism. It also encourages the use of existing buildings, which is more sustainable than building new ones. 

One of her tasks for Preservation Commission will be to serve as a professional advisor for building owners wanting to change the exteriors. For instance, an owner could get her professional advice on what colors would be appropriate for a particular building, based on its age and style of construction.

“If you want to do it (improve a building) in a historically sympathetic manner, you would bring your proposal to the Historic Preservation Commission. Their role is to help you through the process,” she said.

Durham said the goal of creating the local designation is to put objective standards in place for issuance of a Certificate of Appropriateness. Current guidelines give only general ideas of what is considered appropriate. It would be possible for a commission member to vote against a project simply because he or she didn’t like a particular color.

Russett said that after guidelines are adopted, some projects, such as painting an exterior wall, would require only staff approval. Other plans, such as structural changes to an exterior, would have to go for review to the entire Preservation Commission. 

The Preservation Commission would also review plans for demolition and new construction in the district.

“The HPC can dictate how a building can be constructed,” so that its facade complements its surroundings, Russett said. “Sometimes chain stores come in and swallow up what your community is.”

The commission needs permission to form the district from 51 percent of the affected property owners within the proposed district. Surveys were sent in mid-November to all the owners, Russett said, and few have been returned. She is hopeful that more will be returned at Wednesday’s meeting.

If sufficient permission is obtained, the Preservation Commission would develop an ordinance that would go to Connersville City Council for approval.

Durham said he is hoping for a good turnout of property owners and other members of the public, and for a good discussion of the issues.

“We’re trying to clean up the downtown, to make it pretty, a place where people want to come,” Durham said. “We don’t want to tell people what they can and can’t do, we only want to keep it appropriate for that type of construction.”

The Historic Preservation Commission has regular public meetings at 10 a.m. on the second Monday each month in City Hall, 500 Central Ave. Members with Durham are Brad Colter, the outgoing chairman, and Daniel Phelps, Jim Orr, John Bohlander, Donna Scott and Sharon McQueen.