ORLEANS — As you travel on Main Street from Route 28 into East Orleans, the sense of history is palpable. Many 19th century homes line either side of the road and most are situated to preserve the open elegance of the area.
Yet something is missing from this picture: a guarantee that such history and style will survive to represent one of the town's great resources. Unlike many Cape communities, Orleans has no historic districts (other than a little piece of the regional Old King's Highway district along Route 6A). When a property owner insists on tearing down an historic building, all the historical commission can do is impose a temporary demolition delay and work to find someone who will move the structure, separating it from its historical context.
There are better methods, commission members believe, and to that end, they met with consultant Eric Dray Jan. 9 to review options for creating one or more historic districts in Orleans. He served as chair of the study committee in Provincetown whose report led to near-unanimous town meeting approval of what he called “the largest local historic district in the state.”
In a memo to the commission, Dray noted that historic resources “can be negatively impacted by new construction or alteration of significant materials, incompatible alterations or additions, and adjacent new construction that affects the overall setting.” A local historic district, an architectural preservation district, or a National Register Register District are three options for preventing that.
“Local historic districts are by far the most effective way at the the local level,” Dray said. A study committee defines the borders of the district, drafts a bylaw, and holds a public hearing. Town meeting approval requires a two-thirds vote. “The whole town has a say in what happens in one part of the town,” said Dray, “not just the residents of the district. It makes sense: everyone benefits and is impacted by historic resources in town.”
The scope of review of a local historic district is the broadest of the three options, addressing exterior alterations that are visible from public ways such as new siding or windows, additions, new construction and demolition. Dray said that “a lot of minor things” – storm windows, storm doors – are usually exempt from review, as are ordinary maintenance and repair.
“I always advocate that you don't regulate paint color,” he said. “That creates...”
“Chatham,” commissioner Lisa Fernandes observed, to general laughter.
An architectural preservation district, which Dray described as “local historic district light,” requires a simple majority at town meeting and limits mandatory review to major alterations and demolition. It's an option, he said, “if you have a district where most of the materials have already changed but the overall massing of the streetscape has a sense of place you want to hold onto.”
A National Register District “is least impactful in terms of protection,” Dray said. “Other than on Cape Cod, you can tear your house down the next day.” Here, the Cape Cod Commission reviews as a development of regional impact proposed National Register property demolitions or substantial alterations. Only 14 buildings have been reviewed by the Commission since 1990. If more than 50 percent of the owners in a proposed district object to creating one, it can't proceed.
Dray said it's likely there's an appetite for a district of some sort somewhere in Orleans. “That stretch of Main Street out to Barley Neck Inn,” he said. “I assume most of those people care about their architecture. Without any protection, most of them are still intact.”
“I think we are still taking the temperature of the town,” commission chairman Ron Petersen said, “and the interest (among) community groups willing to get on the bus with us. We've been working hard the last couple of years in educating the public on the really special nature of the history of Orleans. What we have is worth protecting, and the built environment reflects that.”
Fernandes said “there's a preference for preservation” in town, but also “a disconnect between implementation of preservation. When people are talking to contractors and engineers, there's an oh my god factor. They say I would love to preserve it, but oh my god can I please have a demolition permit? That's the sales hurdle: how much more is this going to cost me when you guys drop the district on me?”
Dray suggested working directly with contractors to help them educate owners on the value and even cost-savings of preservation. “When you put in new windows, they're going to fail much sooner than these 150-year-old windows made with old-growth wood,” he said. “The energy cost of making that new window is not a green solution.”
The historical commission is considering starting small when it comes to historic districts. Of interest is the so-called triangle of historic structures along Main Street that includes Federated Church, the historical society's Meetinghouse, and the Academy Playhouse as well as the cemetery.
“From a political standpoint, is it relatively easy to add on to a district?” commissioner Michael Hicks asked. “If we establish a district from Federated Church to Academy Place as a start, then in five years go east all the way down to Barley Neck Inn and then west a few years later? That would allow people to get comfortable with the concept.”
“If you start small and everyone's on board,” Dray said, “in some ways, a National Register District would be easier” to create than a local historic district. He pointed to Chatham's Old Village, a National Register District that is “very intact” and protected to some extent by “the threat of referral” to the Cape Cod Commission.
The historical commission will continue working with Dray and talking to other residents about the protections offered by historic districts. In addition to East Main Street and East Orleans, Petersen said, “there are huge possibilities” for districts elsewhere, including Locust Road, Rock Harbor, Pochet Island, and Nauset Heights.