Preservation options few for age-old buildings

Demoliton delay bylaw explored
By Andrea Ray | Aug 30, 2017
Photo by: Tanner Harding The Captain Hammond House at 41 Main Street, which was recently demolished; local historical groups in Marion are attempting to prevent other houses from sharing the same fate.

Marion — The demolition of a 215-year-old home at 41 Main Street last week riled some residents who worried about losing a part of Marion Village history. But with no regulations that require historical groups to weigh in on the preservation of older buildings, options were few for those who wished to preserve the building.

In the case of 41 Main Street, a concerned abutter appealed the demolition permit before reaching an agreement with the developer and dropping the appeal. (For more on that story, click here.)

However, Building Commissioner Scott Shippey explained, the appeal held little water.

"It's legal to demolish the home as soon as the contractor has the demolition permit in hand," said Shippey. "I explain to the contractor that there is a 30-day appeal period, and then it is on their own conscience as to whether to tear down immediately or not."

There is only one foolproof way to prevent a building from being demolished.

“The only way to preserve a historic building—historic, not just old—is to get it on the National Register of Historic Places,” Shippey said. “Then nobody can touch it.”

Historic, not just old, is key: Buildings must meet special criteria for inclusion on the list. For example, a building must be at least 50 years old and historically preserved (the inside and outside should look near exact to how they did in the past). Additionally, the property must be associated with events or activities that were significant in the past, owned by a historically significant person, or feature significant architectural, historical, or engineering achievements.

Towns do have two tools at their disposal when it comes to preserving historic properties: passing a demolition delay bylaw or establishing a historic district.

After the situation at 41 Main Street, historical groups have ramped up efforts to craft a demolition delay bylaw, which would require the Marion Historical Commission to approve the razing of any building of a certain age or older. The details would be outlined in the bylaw. A permit would not be issued until a number of steps are completed, including a public hearing during which the community can help determine whether the property is historically or architecturally significant.

“We’re hoping to have a delay period where the Marion Historical Commission has a chance to make recommendations,” explained Sippican Historical Society president Frank McNamee. “If abutters were notified and there was a required delay, it would give the Historical Society, as well as other residents, the chance to think up other possible solutions to demolition and make an attempt to preserve the building.”

The Sippican Historical Society is spearheading the demolition bylaw effort, and has based a draft of the bylaw on one passed by the Town of Southborough. The group is working to get the bylaw into Marion’s currently-being-updated Master Plan and onto the Town Meeting agenda in the spring. A town’s master plan, completed every 10 years, maps out goals in various areas, including land use, housing, economic development, and natural and cultural resources.

As currently proposed, the timeline for the delay process would be as follows: The building commissioner would have seven days to forward the demolition application to the Historical Commission, which would then have 10 days to determine whether a property could be historically or architecturally significant, based on the federal Secretary of the Interior’s standards for historic buildings.

If a building is determined to be significant, a public hearing would be held within 15 days. If enough evidence exists to determine that a property should be preserved, the Historical Commission can determine it should be preserved or rehabilitated, rather than demolished. In that case, no demolition permit could be issued for nine months.

During the nine months, if the Historical Commission can find no one willing to purchase, preserve, rehabilitate or restore the building, a demolition permit can be issued. A demolition permit can also be issued if the Historic Commission is satisfied that for nine months, the owner of the building has made continual and reasonable efforts to locate a buyer who will preserve or restore the building, and the efforts have been unsuccessful.

The second option for historic preservation -- establishing a historic district via a Town Meeting-approved bylaw -- has been listed as a goal in various Marion master plans and addressed in recent Open Space and Recreation surveys, where responses have been mixed.

According to Historical Society treasurer Judith Rosbe, bylaws that would have established a historic district have been twice voted down at Town Meeting.

“People were concerned about being told what color they could paint their houses,” she said, noting that the proposed bylaws did not tightly regulate such properties. “It was more to preserve significant architectural features than to dictate paint colors.”

A historic district is overseen by a volunteer Historic District Commission which reviews demolition requests, new construction, or proposed renovations to properties within the district. It can require that new construction or renovations be completed in a way that keeps with the historic character of the district.

A historic district would essentially create a new zoning requirement -- independent of residential, agricultural or commercial zoning, Shippey said.

Currently in the tri-town, only Rochester has a historic district—it covers Rochester Center and extends a ways down New Bedford Road from the center.


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