CHATHAM – Currently the town has two historic districts listed on the National Register of Historic Places – the Old Village and the Marconi/RCA Wireless Receiving Station. Last week the historical commission set in motion plans to nominate up to four more districts to the National Register, putting a high priority on two of the areas, Stage Harbor Road and South Chatham.
The commission endorsed a plan by the community development department to seek $6,000 in community preservation funds at the May annual town meeting to prepare applications for the nominations.
Under the proposal submitted by historical consultant Eric Dray, forms detailing the historical significance of the four areas – Stage Harbor Road, South Chatham, Shore Road and North Chatham – that were prepared in 1991 will be updated. The process will include determining district boundaries and contributing structures. The information will then be submitted to the Massachusetts Historical Commission (MHC), which will determine if the areas are eligible for listing on the National Register.
If MHC concurs that the areas are eligible, nominations for the two priority districts will then be prepared and sent to the National Park Service, which oversees the National Register of Historic Places.
Dray recently completed historic inventory forms for 225 buildings and two area forms for pre-World War II-era cottage colonies on White Pond. Together with previous historic inventory forms, the work completes the assessment of just about all of the buildings in town that are more than 75 years old.
“Now that we have the individual building forms completed, we have sufficient information to go back to the areas determined preliminarily to be eligible in 1991, look at whether they are still eligible, what the boundaries should be and collect a packet of information to submit to Mass. Historic,” Dray told the commission last week.
Residents of Stage Harbor have been discussing a National Historic Register District for the street for more than a decade. Interest was recently revived with the proposed demolition of a 150-year-old Greek Revival home at 271 Stage Harbor Rd. The historical commission placed an 18-month demolition delay on the proposal. While encouraging the owner to seek alternatives to demolition, commission members hoped that the Stage Harbor Road National Register District could be put in place within the 18-month delay period in order to preserve the structure.
Along with the town's demolition delay bylaw, National Historic Districts are a chief means of preserving old buildings, said commission chairman Frank Messina. Typically a National Historic District doesn't afford much protection to historic structures, Dray said. “On Cape Cod that's different,” he added; the historical commission or other town entities can refer projects involving a contributing structure in a district determined to be eligible for National Historic District listing to the Cape Cod Commission, which has the authority to impose preservation measures, including halting demolition.
Historical commission members were concerned about involving property owners within the possible districts in the process. One of the steps in the nomination process, Dray said, is for MHC to hold a public meeting in town to get feedback from residents.
“It's rare that 100 percent of owners are in favor,” he said. If more than 50 percent of owners in a district submit certified letters objecting to the creation of a district, he added, the process will not move forward.
Not all buildings within a district contribute to its historic significance. Structures determined to be non-contributing because of their age or condition are excluded from the district.
“If it's not a contributing structure, you can do anything you want to it,” Dray said.
The period of significance for a district usually begins with its oldest house, he said, and ends about 50 years before the nomination date.
The town has lost some significant historical buildings in recent years, Messina said, and the National Register District is an approach to preservation that can be done relatively quickly. Dray said the assessment work could be completed as soon as this spring. While MHC meets every two weeks, it has a backlog and could take several months to respond to a request for eligibility, he added.