Plan Board Examines Incentives To Encourage Building Reuse

By: Tim Wood

Topics: Zoning/land use

Chatham's neighborhood centers contain both historic and non-historic buildings. The planning board is examining incentives to encourage reuse of existing buildings, especially historic structures, as part of its Route 28 corridor study. TIM WOOD PHOTO

CHATHAM – How can the town encourage the reuse, rather than demolition, of commercial buildings in neighborhood centers, especially if they are historically significant?

Incentives, the planning board was told recently, ranging from relief from dimensional requirements and density bonuses to reducing permit fees and tax breaks.

As part of its ongoing review of recommendations for the Route 28 corridor contained in a 2014 Cape Cod Commission report, the board heard suggestions for building reuse incentives from commission Planner and Historic Preservation Specialist Sarah Korjeff at its Nov. 15 meeting.

The board is also examining recommendations in the commission's report for zoning bylaw changes in neighborhood centers, including changing building and parking setbacks and instituting street-front landscaping requirements. At this year's annual town meeting, small business zoning along most of the Route 28 corridor was changed to residential except in the South Chatham, West Chatham, Cornfield and Crowell Road neighborhood centers; that was a key element of the commission report, and a recommendation going all the way back to the town's long-range comprehensive plan, approved in 2003.

A number of communities in the state and elsewhere provide incentives for the reuse of existing buildings, Korjeff said. “In many cases these are tools focused on incentives to reuse historic structures, but not always,” she said.

Among the incentives are relief from dimensional regulations and parking requirements, including setbacks. The town could institute an adaptive reuse overlay district with relaxed regulations for reuse of existing buildings, or allow certain percentage reductions in required parking. Some communities, she said, allow planning boards to authorize uses that would not otherwise be allowed in a zoning district if it facilitates the reuse of a building.

Density bonuses are another mechanism, and could include exempting a certain percentage of square footage or allowing an additional lot to be created if an existing building is reused. Owners could exchange greater lot coverage of more units in exchange for reusing a building. In some places, the square footage of an existing building that is to be reused is not counted toward the total lot coverage, she said.

Another avenue is to use the full demolition delay period allowed under town regulations. In Chatham, buildings 75 years or older outside of the general business zone can be subject to an 18-month demolition delay, the longest on the Cape, imposed by the historical commission. That doesn't apply to buildings within the general business district, however, which are under the authority of the historic business district commission, which can prohibit demolition altogether.

Historic structure can also qualify for alternative methods of meeting fire and life safety codes, Korjeff said. The building code gives the building commission flexibility regarding older buildings, especially if they are on the National Register of Historic Places or are determined to be historically significant. California has an entire section of its building code related to this subject, she said.

Other possible incentives include reducing permit frees; streamlining the permit process; and restriction access to variances or other development incentives for projects that involve building demolition.

Korjeff also reviewed suggestions for changing existing road and parking setbacks in neighborhood centers which would do two things: make a number of buildings that are now nonconforming comply, and encourage structures to be built closer to the road to promote a more pedestrian-friendly environment. In many locations, setbacks are now 50 feet from the road while existing buildings are as close to 10 to 15 feet from the edge of the layout. That would also encourage reuse of existing buildings that currently don't meet setbacks, she said.

Chairman Peter Cocolis said that would also encourage the neighborhood concept and slow traffic down in areas such as West Chatham. Buildings close to the road “is not something new, it's something New England's had for years. It's the charm of New England,” he said.

Cocolis said he can see residents being critical of zoning ideas that originate in other locations, especially big cities. “This is what we'll hear: Chatham is special. It's a special place.”

“I sort of anticipated that,” Korjeff said, adding that “they're all ideas I think could be adapted specifically to Chatham's situation.” Planning board member DeeDee Holt noted that Chatham has been in the forefront of many planning activities, and if there are ideas from another location that can be successfully adapted here, “this may be an opportunity for Chatham to be in the forefront again.” Just because a zoning bylaw originates from elsewhere “doesn't mean it isn't a good idea that can't be adapted,” she said.

While board members said they were especially interested in incentives to encourage reuse of buildings deemed to be historically significant, they agreed incentives could help preserve other buildings that might not meet historical criteria but were nonetheless important to a neighborhood center.

“If it's not historic, it would be on a case-by-case basis,” said John Marsh.