CHATHAM — In the wake of the “surprise” demolition of the historic Reuben C. Smith house at 1610 Main St. last month, town staff members are drafting a new policy to ensure closer cooperation with the Historic Business District Commission.
Selectmen reviewed the case at the request of resident Norm Pacun, who said the law that enables the HBDC gives it clear authority to review pending demolitions of historic buildings in the district. Though the building commissioner found the structure to be extremely unsafe, steps could have been taken to prevent public access to the structure until the HBDC held a public hearing.
“We certainly can't go back in time and have that building come back up,” Selectman Cory Metters said. Steps need to be taken to ensure that similar historic structures in town aren't prematurely razed.
“It's a tough lesson to learn,” he said.
The property is owned by Eastward Homes, which has not yet filed plans for the re-use of the property.
“I think it's unfortunate that the building got taken to the ground, and I think this is an easy fix,” board member Seth Taylor said. The town's building commissioner needs to recognize that while the HBDC cannot always prevent a building from being demolished, it should have the opportunity to discuss the demolition beforehand, he said.
Selectman Amanda Love said she would like to have the community development department draft a specific process that guides town staff in instances when historic homes are slated for demolition because of pressing safety concerns.
Because the property was located in the West Chatham small business district, it is under the jurisdiction of the historic business district commission, not the historical commission. While the historical commission can invoke the town's demolition delay bylaw, the HBDC has the power to stop demolition.
Pacun said the town's initial inspection of the property took place on March 9, with a subsequent inspection by a private engineer taking place on March 17. Building Commissioner Justin Post walked through the property with the health inspector in late April, and notification was given to the HBDC on May 18, two days before he signed the demolition order.
“The building was razed to the ground the following day, May 21,” Pacun said. There was ample warning that the property might be demolished, with adequate time for an HBDC hearing, he argued.
Section 5 of the HBDC enabling legislation contains a provision that allows the building commissioner to authorize demolition without a permit from the HBDC if necessary to protect public safety. Selectman Dean Nicastro said anyone driving by the property could surmise that the building was in serious disrepair, but steps likely could have been taken to allow it to remain standing until the HBDC reviewed the case.
“I must say how sad it is to lose one of our significant historic structures, regardless of the circumstances,” resident Gloria Freeman said. “We thought we had protections in place, but then we found out that we didn't.” While it's not possible to know whether the building might have been saved, or even partially salvaged, “this house was part of the history and heritage of West Chatham,” she said.
“I'm not perfect,” Post told the board of selectmen. But years of neglect had caused advanced deterioration in the house that would have jeopardized contractors or emergency personnel entering the building.
“It was a particularly unsafe situation,” he said. While this case was very rare, Post said he looks forward to having a better process to govern demolitions.