Get ready for another heated debate in Cape May about ... roofs and siding.

The Historic Preservation Commission - which enforces the building standards that ensure the city maintains its status as a National Historic Landmark - wants to revise (don't necessarily think "update") its rules.

Cape May's tourism economy, of course, is built around its remarkable collection of vintage Victorian homes - "the largest collection of 19th century wood-frame structures in the country," says Warren Copeland, chairman of the historic commission.

People flock to the city for a trip back in time, and it's Copeland's job to ensure they don't find window air conditioners and vinyl siding when they get there.

It's not an easy battle. It is certainly not always a completely popular battle. And, as we have noted on occasion, the historic commission has sometimes seemed unnecessarily inflexible. But without its design standards, Cape May would not be Cape May. And anyone who chooses to buy property in the city's historic district knows they face a long and restrictive list of design rules and regulations.

Last week, Copeland told the City Council that those rules, last revised 10 years ago before solar panels, wind turbines and satellite-television dishes became popular, need to be revised again to ensure the integrity of Cape May's historic status.

Being historically accurate, among other things, means cedar siding and cedar roofs and using only windows made out of wood. Only City Council can change the rules, and the process could easily get contentious, with council, property owners and the historic commission all pitted against each other.

The historic commission has compromised before - it allows solar panels and wind turbines in the Historic District as long as they are not visible from the street. But Copeland has made it clear that he wants City Council to take a hard line against any liberalization of the rules.

Some issues are tough calls, though. Wood windows, for example. Some have noted that there are vinyl/wood replacement windows made specifically for historic structures.

All we can say here is that both sides in this coming debate may have to compromise a bit. But in the end, City Council will have to remember that historical accuracy is Cape May's "brand." And it would be foolish to ever jeopardize that brand.

The National Park Service temporarily placed Cape May on its list of troubled landmarks in 1996 when the Christian Admiral Hotel was demolished and again in 2008 due to "inappropriate new construction, demolition and traffic," Copeland said. Losing landmark status would mean the loss of grants, tax breaks - and, most important, tourists. And in tourism-dependent Cape May, no one wants that to happen.


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