GUEST COMMENTARY | New Town of Telluride Historic Survey?
by Dirk de Pagter
Jan 24, 2013 | 1847 views | 1 1 comments | 15 15 recommendations | email to a friend | print

Dirk de Pagter is a 38 year resident of Telluride. He is a master carpenter by trade, trained in historic preservation. De Pagter is a history buff, and he and his family are the proud owners of some of the more historic buildings in Telluride, including the Tomkins Christy Hardware Store building (where Patagonia Sports is located) and the Tomboy Mines Office building (where Telluride Alpine Lodging is located); he is also a member of the Telluride Association of Realtors.

Since 2007, the Town of Telluride has embarked on what was characterized (and budgeted for) as an “update” of the current Historic Survey of the structures in the historic district of the town.

First Some History

In 1961 then-Mayor Doyle Duncan requested that the Secretary of the Interior designate Telluride as a National Historic Landmark District. This designation was granted by Congress on July 4, 1961. No action was taken by the town at that time to designate any structures. When Telluride’s fortunes changed in the 1970s, to an up-and-coming ski community with the associated need for new homes, buildings and ski accommodations, the community decided to do a Historic Structures Survey. In 1978, with the use of many laypersons, this survey was accomplished. It was easy then; there were only a few new buildings.

Because the 1978 survey was done by laypersons, the town decided to update the survey in 1986-1987, and have it done by professional consultants. A historic preservation architect was hired to accomplish this task. This Historic Survey is what is currently in use, and establishes the ratings of each historic structure in the Telluride historic district. This survey established that Telluride’s period of National Historic Significance was from 1878-1913, which means that the Historic Survey should focus only on surviving structures constructed between 1878-1913, during Telluride’s mining boom period.

In establishing its rating system in 1986-1987 that remains in place today, the Town followed the National Park Service’s guidelines and criteria. The Town quickly departs from the NPS guidelines, however, by expanding the categories/ratings of structures from standard NPS ratings of only two categories (contributing/rated or non-contributing/not rated) to four categories (contributing, supporting, non-contributing with qualifications and non-contributing without qualifications). The effect of this expanded rating system is the designation of many structures in Telluride that would not be rated, if the NPS standards were strictly followed.  The impact of an historic rating on a landowner affects what if any renovations can be made to a rated structure, and whether a structure can be demolished and replaced with a new structure.

The New Survey

In 2007 Town Council decided it was time to update the 1986-1987 Survey, but for budgetary reasons, did not proceed until 2012.

A regular update of the Historic Survey makes sense: buildings burn down and are replaced with new structures, etc. Under our unique rating system, it is possible for owners to restore buildings and receive state tax credits.

The new survey is not, however, an update.

Correctly titled “The Telluride ‘Re-Survey’ of Historic Structures,” it is an entirely new survey that amends and restates the 1986-1987 Historic Survey.

This brings forth some issues. Has history changed? Have buildings changed and become more historic? There is an old cliché that says, “Each generation rewrites history.” But this rewrite can have, and does have, some significant impacts on individual properties, property owners and property rights.

Our objective should be true historic preservation: to preserve and cherish what is truly historic, and to avoid replication, mimicking, and compromising of the structures of this iconic era. These objectives should be balanced against the rights, interests and expectations of property-owners in Telluride who acquired property with improvements that were subject to historic ratings established and applied by the Town. It is entirely fair for the Town, as part of an update, to look at buildings that were previously rated and determine if the rating should change, based upon new information, which could include changes in the condition of the building or the discovery of new, relevant information and similar factors.

It is entirely unfair and inappropriate for the Town and its current consultants to take the same information that was relied upon by prior consultants to establish and apply new, more restrictive ratings to property based upon their subjective determinations which vary from the findings and recommendations obtained by the Town in 1986-1987.  The findings, determinations and resulting ratings contained in the 1986-1987 Historic Survey, which were reviewed, understood and relied upon by persons investing in our community, should be carried forward, in the absence of changed circumstances or new information, unless a more restrictive rating is requested by the property owner, and approved by the Town. There should be certainty, balance and fairness in our regulatory processes.  

There are several significant structural issues with the new survey. For example there are glaring errors and no method to quickly administratively correct them. The Macintosh Building (location of the Bounty Hunter Hat Shop and Dolce Jewelers) was built in 1973, and it was upgraded from “non-contributing with qualifications” (an error in the 1986-1987 survey) to the highest rating of “contributing.” When I pointed this out to town staff and recommended this be corrected, I was informed that any changes to the new survey have to be approved by the consultant, the Historic and Architectural Review Committee and possibly Town Council. This is crazy! It is guilty until proven innocent – bad law for a democratic government. There are many more errors; many of the rating changes are the opinion of the consultant, and not necessarily historic fact. Other examples are several sheds, claimed to be from the Period of Significance, ending in 1913. Many of these sheds have original double swinging doors and were built as garages. No internal combustion carriages (automobiles) were in use in Telluride prior to 1913, and therefore there was no need for garages. Horses and buggies were left at one of the many liveries in town.

Another questionable change is that the consultant took the liberty of changing the rating system from individual structures to entire parcels or lots. This compounds the problem for the property-owner of a parcel that contains a contributing house and a non-contributing shed – now the shed has an upgraded rating, in a clear example of “guilt by association.” A building-by-building rating system makes good sense; whole parcels or lots should not be rated. Land is not historic; the structures built during the Period of Significance are what are important.

This Raises the Question: Why Are We Doing This New Survey?

When asked in a recent meeting, “Why are we doing this new survey?” one of our town staff explained it is because we are on the National Park Service Watch List – that we have to update our design guidelines and update the Historic Survey.

The NPS Watch List

How did we end up on the NPS Watch List? Simple. Some staffers, with the encouragement of some Town Council members, asked to be put on the Watch List for political reasons. Being put on the Watch List serves as a perfect boogieman to control and scare the community into submission. On several occasions in the last few years, well-intentioned HARC members have invited NPS representatives to town for their opinions on how Telluride was doing with historic preservation. The reviews were glowing! We were the “poster child of historic preservation.” However, some Town Council members expressed the opinion that we should stay on the Watch List. Council Member Bob Saunders’ quote published in the January 29, 2009 edition of The Watch clearly depicted a bias when he stated, “‘I think keeping us on the Watch List is a good thing. It keeps people more tuned to the fact that we have to watch what we do,’ he said. ‘That sort of tension is good.’”

As recent as March 9, 2010, in a joint Planning and Zoning  and HARC committee joint meeting, NPS representative Tom Keohar stated, “The town seems to want to remain on the Watch List for its own reasons. If the town wants to be removed from the Watch List, just send us [NPS] a letter and you [Telluride] will be removed within 24 hours.”

Opinion: In conclusion

As citizens of this community, we should demand truth in government and not tolerate this type of manipulation. To retain any credibility with the electorate of this community, Town Council has to direct staff to: (1) scuttle the new rewrite of the Historic Survey and prepare only an update to the 1986-1987 Historic Survey, revising the ratings only on those structures where changes to the building has occurred or new, material information discovered; (2) request the NPS to remove the Telluride Historic District from the Watch List and (3) quit wasting money (a whopping $160,000 to date) and hundreds of hours of Town Staff’s time on politically driven surveys (we have better uses for this money in these difficult times).

Do not try to rewrite history for us; it’s insulting.

Comments-icon Post a Comment
February 12, 2013
I wonder when the Heritage Festival will start showcasing Telluride's "real estate boom" as a significant part of the town's historical record?

Perhaps in addition to demonstrations on mining, stage coach rides, livestock, etc., one day there'll be booths with old realtors telling their tales of how it was just one giant unspoken relay race which had an effect on many aspects of life in and around town. "We used to be on all the governing boards, had columns or regular commentaries running in the papers, of course the dark smokey rooms where winks and nods with our favored politicians ruled the day." Of course it wasn't all serious business, "Most of us had given each other fun nicknames - the tourists really fell for some of those".

Getting back to the present day, where self-interests are a thing of the past: I do believe we ought to always provide a consistent and fair playing field when it comes to private property rights. It affords all of us the same set of rules to provide a general set of parameters for what is allowed and what is not.

Most zoning has some mechanism to allow for change; typically, either procedural or by variance. This is not a new concept by any means and most property owners should be aware of this fact.

The way I see it, a National Historic District is based upon a set of facts with respect to the past ... which can be a bit fuzzy given we're talking about a time period which wasn't necessarily recorded meticulously - let alone having every square foot YouTube'd.

If a set of facts is proven wrong, then it's necessary to update one's factual repository and adjust accordingly. Why should a NHD be based upon fiction simply because private property stakeholders didn't perform due diligence with respect to their subject property? If a property is next to an avalanche path - and was purchased based upon information contained in past avalanche studies - and new technology provides a more accurate model which causes changes with respect to the existing mapping, one can't simply ignore the new (and possibly more accurate) information.

I guess some fictions are more benign than others, but the point being that we ought not cling to a slice in time provided there's a fair way to move forward. Perhaps a third independent study via mediation could provide support or refutation of exiting claims. Grandfathering for existing owners until transfer of property could also be another pathway. There are lots of creative solutions other than embracing what might be a fiction.

Oh, what about those night flights?