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Wrestling with window dressing: Sylva holds off on plywood-window decree

fr sylvawindowsManufactured homes, metal siding and unfinished concrete blocks are no longer allowed in downtown Sylva. The plywood coverings blocking out so many windows up and down Main Street, however, can stay a while longer. 

The Sylva Board of Commissioners recently decided to approve ordinance amendments disallowing certain structures in downtown, specifically mobile homes and buildings with a metal siding or unfinished concrete block exterior. The board chose to hold off on an amendment mandating that windows currently sporting plywood coverings be replaced with glass.

“I feel more comfortable with starting it that way,” said Commissioner Mary Gelbaugh.

Sylva has been discussing tweaking the downtown standards for a while. Recently, the downtown area was listed on the National Historic Register, and town leaders are looking to ensure a certain level of aesthetic standards. 

The commissioners decided to address the boarded-up windows along Main Street following the downtown fire that damaged a number of properties in August. Firefighters have said that their efforts were stalled and hampered by plywood window coverings — the fire raged on as firefighters worked a chainsaw while standing atop a ladder to painstakingly chew through second floor ply board.

The plywood also apparently hid the fire for some time.

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“As it was,” Fire Chief Mike Beck told the board, “it had to burn through the board in the back of the building before anyone knew there was a fire.”

While the commissioners had no problem amending town ordinance to ban particular structures and exterior finishes, the plywood window coverings gave them pause. 

 “I think we have jumped in too quick — and the fire was a dangerous thing and it could happen again — but we’ve got to put some thought into this,” said Commissioner Harold Hensley. 

Several commissioners spoke about the cost involved in replacing windows. They also fretted that the six months the town would be allowing for upgrades to be made was too little time. 

“My thing is six months is too soon to do this,” said Commissioner Danny Allen, suggesting the town allow property owners a year or two “to give them time to budget.” “It’s going to be pretty detrimental to some of the business owners, and plus they have suffered some already with the closing of downtown.”

Gelbaugh said she had spoken with a couple of property owners who told her the cost of replacing their windows would be too great. She also questioned why the town would expect property owners to take on such improvements during the off-season. 

“That is the deadest time on Main Street, there is no income,” Gelbaugh said. 

Attorney Paul Holt also implored commissioners to reconsider the window-related ordinance amendment. The attorney’s Main Street office was long-ago renovated — including the closing up of some windows — and he was concerned the measure would require expensive and unwanted retrofits.

“If you pass this ordinance and I have to do something on the ground floor, it’s going to gut the inside of my building,” Holt said. “I don’t think this ordinance ought to apply to my building since it’s been there since 1967.”

But there was also some appetite on the town board to move ahead with the plywood amendment. Commissioner Lynda Sossamon suggested that perhaps the town’s new National Historic Register designation might help net property owners some tax breaks for “rehabilitation” improvements and urged the board to at least approve some loose language as an amendment placeholder while the details were worked out.

“We have to get something started,” Sossamon said. 

But ultimately the board decided to hold off on requiring the replacement of plywood window coverings with actual windows. They wondered how much time should be allowed for the upgrades. They wondered if first floor windows should be included.

Commissioners kicked the amendment back to the town planning board for some reconsideration. They plan to take up the measure again next month.

“I think we can have that ordinance reworded and ready to present at our October meeting,” said Mayor Maurice Moody.

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