Joanna Hamer | Staff Writer
Chautauqua’s grounds are at the same time historic and contemporary, the houses cut from the same cloth and incredibly diverse, the emphasis both on maintaining the integrity of the buildings and the environment. Is the Institution more a museum or a village? Should it reflect the 19th-century vision of the founders or the 21st-century minds of current Chautauquans?
Those difficult issues confronted the Architectural and Land Use Study Group, formed last season to look at the current regulations, whose work is coming to a conclusion at the end of this year.
On Wednesday from 3 to 4 p.m. in Smith Wilkes Hall, the group will present their current work reviewing and reconsidering the regulations and take questions from the community.
The group was charged with reviewing the rules in place about renovation, demolition and new construction on the grounds, and set out to make the process more streamlined, accessible and understandable.
“The biggest issue that we had is that the rules are out there, but no one knows how to find them,” said Bob Jeffrey, the chairman of the study group. “The first thing was to put them in some sort of format where everyone can find them.”
The study group suggests rewriting some of the regulations that were out of date or impractical. They plan to condense the previous 17 districts of the grounds into five separate areas to which different rules apply based on age, existing architecture and character.
The original Architectural and Land Use policy was developed in the 1980s and revised in 2010. When it was first written, Jeffrey said, it was a reaction to several bad projects and thus had a restrictive tone. The new revisions are more focused on preservation.
“Our approach is: Wait a second, what do we have here already, what do we want to make sure exists 100 years from now, and how do we put things in place that can help that happen.”
The original language is also vague, often requiring that buildings be “compatible” or “sympathetic,” and Jeffrey said that the study group has proposed better definitions for the requirements. The rules also mostly apply to “substantial renovation” or “demolition,” so the study group has tried to create better ways to promote renovation and restoration in order to help preserve older properties.
Looking to the future, the rules also need to be flexible in order to accommodate new technologies and problems of the type that the grounds are currently experiencing.
“We have to be careful how we write it, because we don’t even know what is going to change in the next five years. There’s a lot of things we’ve thought about that 30 years ago didn’t exist.”
The study group took advice from the larger Chautauqua community, holding open sessions last season that brought up a number of issues to be addressed. The largest problem voiced was simply clarity, as both those doing construction and their neighbors were unsure of the regulations and restrictions.
“There were a lot of people that came in with one specific project that they were upset about,” Jeffrey said, “but when we put all the information together and listened to it, it was three or four common things that came up.”
The biggest issue, the study group found, was that 85 percent of those they surveyed had not read the regulations — perhaps for good reason.
“I’m a professional in this, and I read these things all day long, and I have to say the first time I looked at them I was baffled,” Jeffrey said. “I really couldn’t find the information easily. That’s 90 percent of the problem. We’re going to make it very easy to find.”
Jeffrey said that the proposed regulations are based on what they heard from the community and that they hope the outcome makes the process easier for all Chautauquans.
John Shedd, architectural and land use regulations administrator and capital projects manager, who advised and helped facilitate the study group, said that the community input was the most important part for him.
“Everybody has the opportunity to be involved,” he said. “That was my first year here, so I experienced the same thing that they were experiencing — that this is a really open process and that we really worked hard to include as many comments as we could.”
Shedd complimented the study group on their dedication and energy in the pursuit of the challenge.
“They wanted to get things done and done well. I just can’t believe the participants who are involved and what level of expertise they all have, and the interesting angles you get from people,” Shedd said.
The information presented at the session Wednesday will be finalized and put before the board of trustees in November. Once approved, the new regulations will go online and Chautauquans will be notified about where they can read and respond to the changes.
“I think that people, after they’ve left here and they’re in their normal lives, will take the time to sit down and answer these questions,” Shedd said.
“We’re hoping that by doing it over the Web in the wintertime, that will give people a good time to sit down and think about it and give us the feedback before it’s adopted, but then we can roll it off in the spring before the construction starts again,” Jeffrey said.
The new policy will include 3D images that will help illustrate the design and construction requirements.
“It’ll help people get an idea of what they would likely get approved, so they don’t feel that they are just rolling the dice,” Shedd said. “And it’s not a dice roll right now, but some people feel it is, because there is obviously a level of subjectivity to any design project.”
Even though the new rules are not in effect yet, the greater awareness of the current regulations brought about by the study group and community feedback sessions has had a positive effect on construction on the grounds.
“People have been complying, as far as I can tell, a lot more this year,” Shedd said. “I think word of mouth has gotten around that we’re trying hard to make sure people are following the rules, for their own good as well as for the Institution’s good, for their neighbors’ good.”
“We still have a lot of work ahead of us,” Jeffrey said. “We just aren’t ready to roll it out yet, but we’ve got enough of it done that we can give them a good overview next week at the meeting.”