ON SEPT. 30, residents of Overbrook Farms got a letter.
The city's Historical Commission was thinking about making the area a "historic district," property owners were told. Although the commission hadn't held a public meeting on the plan, owners would have to start following historic-district rules immediately.
This meant that any time a resident needed a building permit to fix a roof or put on an addition, the commission had to approve it.
Residents were surprised. It was the first time some of them had ever heard of the plan.
"No one told me anything about this," said resident R.J. Krohn.
The movement to make Overbrook Farms a historic district dates to 2004, when the homeowners association Overbrook Farms Club applied to get the neighborhood placed on the city's Register of Historic Places. The process of deciding whether to approve the application was put off for several years due to a budget shortage.
According to Jon Farnham, executive director the commission, representatives had attended several meetings held by the Overbrook Farms Club before sending out the letter but hadn't otherwise talked to many residents.
The letter said that two meetings were scheduled for Nov. 30 and last Friday, when the commission was scheduled to vote on the proposal.
Neighbors at both meetings complained about the rules being imposed before any public discussion. Many said that they weren't part of the Overbrook Farms Club and hadn't been notified about the plan.
"When you send a letter from the Historical Commission saying you're taking jurisdiction over my property," said resident Bill Finegan, "you're taking power from us."
Martha Poller said: "If they had held a hearing before the letter went out, that would have made all the difference in the world."
Some worry that being part of a historic district would make it more expensive to maintain their homes.
Kevin Maurer, president of the Overbrook Farms Club, argued that the change would force absentee landlords to clean up their properties.
Farnham said that the commission would actually help people maintain their homes.
He said that the commission was simply abiding by the law: In 1985, City Council passed a bill that requires the commission to impose its rules on residents as soon as it sends out a letter notifying them of public meetings. The point, he said, is to keep people from rushing to do pre-emptive work.
Farnham stressed that this doesn't make the Overbrook Farms proposal a "done deal."
On Friday, at Councilman Curtis Jones Jr.'s request, the commission decided not to vote until February.
Jones said that he wanted the extra time to hold more meetings. In the meantime, the rules will remain in effect: Residents still can't repair their roofs without the commission's approval.
Farnham admitted that this saga has forced the commission to rethink how it should notify neighbors of its plans.
"There is always room to improve the process, to include property owners earlier in the process," he said.
If Council won't change the law, the commission could make a point to talk to more neighborhood groups before imposing its rules.