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No city mandate for historic colors (07/31/2013)
By Chris Rogers

Virginia Soil is okay. Henna Red is great. But Electric Lime? The Winona Heritage Preservation Committee (HPC) considered whether the city should require property owners in historic districts to choose from a palette of historically appropriate colors when they paint their buildings.

Currently, a variety of structural changes and remodels to historic buildings require HPC approval, but there is nothing to stop the owner of a historic brick building from painting it, say, neon green.

A proposed ordinance amendment would have required property owners to use historic paint colors, or seek special approval from the HPC. The commission considered the proposal as a means to avoid unsightly color schemes as well as to encourage property owners not to paint unpainted brick. Paint traps moisture in brick and mortar. Overtime that can weaken bricks, City Planner Mark Moeller explained. Additionally, once virgin brick or stone is painted, it is essentially impossible to restore it, commissioners noted.

The proposal would not specify certain colors, but require that paints be selected from a company's historic collection. Such collections feature a variety of earth tones with names like Sycamore Tan and Harvest Gold plus a few bolder teals and blues, but no hot pink.

Not so fast; "we need to pick our battles and not be the paint nazis," said commissioner Lynn Englund.

Englund and Sebo suggested that the commission might put together an informational campaign on historic colors. That would be "nonthreatening, but it gets it out there," Sebo said.

"Sometimes I feel like nothing we do has any teeth," said commissioner Shaune Burke. "The proposal doesn't say, 'Our way or the highway,'" she continued. "It allows us to get involved in that kind of decision-making."

Sebo responded that either way, the proposal might not have any teeth. When remodeling projects require the city to issue a building permit, the city can withhold permits if the proposal does not meet the standards of the historic preservation ordinance. Since property owners do not need a permit to paint, it would more difficult for the city to enforce painting rules, he reasoned. Moeller agreed that enforcing such a rule would be problematic.

Maybe the city could require a painting permit, commissioners suggested.

Sebo said he would not support such a proposal. "We've always told people, 'We are never going to tell you what color to paint your house.' Now we're doing just that," he said.

Ultimately, the committee erred on the side of discretion. It voted to set aside the historic color requirement and develop an educational campaign, instead. 


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