Lewes' Historic Preservation taken to task

Home renovations approved, but not without scrutiny
The Lewes Historic Preservation Commission approved with conditions renovations and an addition at 302 Mulberry Street. The dissatisfied homeowners say the process is baffling. BY NICK ROTH
August 8, 2014

Two hours into a debate over the style and grandeur of plans for a home on Mulberry Street, Lewes Historic Preservation Commission granted approval to the project, but only after imposing a list of conditions.

The proceedings left homeowner Ramin Mojdeh baffled. Based on concerns raised at the commission's July meeting, Mojdeh altered his original plans. Returning with new plans, he expected the approval process to go smoothly.

“We worked very hard to change our own personal tastes to conform to what we heard from you, so we broke up the house to the extent possible,” he told the commission. “We made a lot of compromises to do that.”

Still, commission members were uncomfortable with the architect's vision for the home. They said the plans turned what was a simple farm house from the first half of the 19th century into a grand, rich-looking home. In approving the project, the commission attached conditions: change curved palladian windows, simplify the proposed porch, detach the garage from the back of the house and decrease the proposed height.

Construction may begin as soon as the architect and builder provide the city building inspector with updated plans that reflect the required changes.

Mojdeh said he does not agree with most of the changes the historic preservation commission imposed, but he will abide by them.

“I'm terribly dissatisfied with them, but I respectfully will try to address them,” he said. “I am at your mercy.”

After sitting quietly next to his wife through a public hearing and then the first hour of the commission's discussion, Mojdeh finally took an opportunity to criticize the commission's process.

“I run a very, very big company and solve very, very complex problems, and I'm baffled and puzzled by what I'm hearing because I don't know if this is practical,” he said prior to the commission rendering a decision. “I don't even know where to even go back to the drawing board or what to address. Even this committee has different opinions about different things.”

Mojdeh is not the first person to criticize the historic preservation commission. Last month, builder and property owner Josh Mastrangelo and his lawyer, Bill Schaab, also took the commission to task, calling its demands subjective and uncalled for when Mastrangelo was trying to win approval to build a new home on Front Street.

This month, the process left Mojdeh, builder John Zacharias and architect Joe Hill dumbfounded. The home has been traced back to the 1840s; Hill designed a house to complement the style of home at the time.

“History is constant flux,” he said. “You can't just dig yourself down and say we're done here. That happens. Different people own the house with different income qualities. And people are entitled to evolve. That's how communities evolve. Lewes is a diverse collection of incomes and trades and architecture.”

Commission member Linda Palmer complimented the design of the proposed renovations, but she said it was not appropriate for the home's known history. She said it is the commission's job to preserve the elements that reflect the cultural, social, economic, political and architectural history of Lewes.

Lewes Historical Society Executive Director Mike DiPaolo testified that Mulberry Street in the early 19th century featured sparse lots with farmette-style homes.

“This house is gorgeous, but I feel that it's much too formal,” Palmer said. “This isn't a simple farm house.”

The palladian window design and proposed front porch were the elements that lent an inappropriate grandeur to the design, she said.

For commission member Barbara Warnell, the size of the home was a big issue. At 3,209 square feet, she said, the mass detracted from the farmhouse feel.

“When rehabilitating a house, it's not really a Chinese menu of picking and choosing,” she said. “You really have to respect a style that is significant to the character of Lewes.”

Because the lot sits on the corner of Mulberry and Third streets, commission members said, there should be enough room to detach the planned garage from the home. Along with building to a lower height, commission members said, the scale of the home should be corrected.

The commission voted 4-1 to approve construction with conditions. Member Richard Cecil was the lone dissenting vote. He supported the homeowner's plan for the property.

“I like what is proposed,” he said. “They're renovating the existing dwelling, demolishing a later addition and replacing it with a new one. I think it's an improvement to the property.”'

The next historic preservation commission meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, Sept. 2.

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