I had a simple mission when I took the elevator up to the third floor of town hall. I was going to file a one-page application with the Preservation Commission for permission to tear down my childhood home, which we will soon be putting on the market. I had been informed that such a process can take up to a year, and it is best to “get the ball rolling” if you think that a potential buyer might want to tear it down and start anew.
According to their website, the Preservation Commission of this town is a locally certified “government” with the responsibility to “promote the protection, restoration, and preservation of the town’s historical and cultural assets…” Sounds harmless enough, right? But a “government” in its own right…not just an agency? Hmmmm…
I came to town hall prepared. With a couple of decades of legal experience behind me, I knew what to expect. I grabbed a check for an application fee. I brought a copy of the deed, the trust, a trustee’s certificate showing my authority. I brought a positive mental attitude, and I took a couple of deep, healing breaths before I walked in the front door.
Much to my delight, there were also no customers in line at the Preservation Commission, and there were 3 people working at their desks behind the counter.
“Can I help you?” one woman asked.
“I would like to file a waiver from the Preservation Commission.”
“What kind of a waiver?”
“Whatever I need for permission to tear down a house.”
“Just a minute.” She disappeared to a back room. A few minutes later, she came back. “The person you need to talk to is on the phone.”
“No problem, I’ll wait.” I stood at the counter.
“Why don’t you take a seat,” she offered, indicating two desk chairs by the door, and I sat, like a schoolgirl waiting to see the principal. The chairs were low enough so that I was invisible to the people behind the counter.
After 10 minutes, a woman (herein, “Mean Lady”) came to the desk. “Sorry to keep you waiting,” she said coldly.
“No problem,” I answered in my most optimistic voice.
“How can I help you?”
I explained again why I was there.
“You can’t file for that.” She said, her face turning to stone. “You need to file for a building permit first.”
“What? Are you sure? I was told this was the first step.”
“Yes, I am sure. You can’t file with us until you have a building permit.”
Luckily, the Building department sits across the hall from the Preservation Commission. There, a wonderful, young woman (herein, “Nice Lady”) explained that for at least the last 5 years, the process was to file with the Preservation Commission first.
“We can’t even look at a building permit until we have an OK from Preservation,” Nice Lady explained to both of us, wondering out loud why Mean Lady was not aware of that.
And while Mean Lady walked back across the hall, Nice Lady grabbed me a one page application, which she helped me fill out, and which she date stamped with a very official looking stamp.
“There you go! Now just file this with the Preservation Commission.”
“They’re mean over there…” I said sheepishly, and headed back across the hall.
Meanwhile, back at the Preservation Commission….
“What do you want me to do with this?” Mean Lady asked, back at the counter, when I handed her the stamped application.
“I’m not sure,” I said, “I thought you would know. File it? Start the ball rolling with the waiver?”
A few more minutes of back and forth, a more senior woman (herein “Senior Mean Lady”), came out. There was a tension in the air I just couldn’t ignore.
“Can I ask you something?” I inquired. “Am I doing something wrong? Am I doing something bad? Why is everyone here giving me such a hard time with this simple application? This was my mother’s house, she died, I want to sell it. Someone may want to knock it down.”
“Well, yes,” Senior Mean Lady explained, “I think you ARE doing something wrong. We don’t like to see anyone tear down houses. It is my job to see that no one tears anything down.”
I was incredulous. What is it with these people?
“Really, is that your job?” I asked, my emotions getting the better of me, “Because I thought your job was to make sure that nothing historical gets knocked down. You have no idea if this property is historically significant. I just want to get the ball rolling to see if it is.” (By the way, it isn’t.)
“We don’t like people to ‘get the ball rolling.’”
Reluctantly, she took the application.
“That will be $300 please. One check for $200 and one check for $100, both made payable to the town.”
“I only brought one check. Can I write one check to the Town for $300?”
“No, you can’t. Two checks.”
And that is when I lost it. My eyes started welling up with tears. And that is when she took pity on me and said I could send in the second check (which I did immediately- I couldn’t bear the thought of going back in there again.)
There is a part of me that thinks she might “misplace” that check… or lose it, but I am going to believe in her basic humanity… and I’ll call to check up.
I have been told this Commission finds something of historical importance with almost every home. I am wondering what they will say about this one. Maybe it will be that a famous writer grew up there.
HA! Now wouldn’t that be ironic?
Stay tuned for Part 2 of “How A Town Clerk Made Me Cry”..or maybe the new title will be, “They Aren’t The Town Mean Girls After All”. I can’t wait to find out what happens next.