Funds For National Historic Register District Studies On Hold

By: Tim Wood

This house on Stage Harbor Road, currently under a demolition delay imposed by the historical commission, is one of several antique homes in the neighborhood officials say would be better protected under a National Historic Register District designation. FILE PHOTO

CHATHAM – A proposal to use $30,000 in community preservation funds to develop National Historic Register District nominations for two neighborhoods has run into a snag.

Community preservation committee members questioned whether the proposal fit within the historic preservation function of the CPA, noting that it did not directly preserve an historic resource.

There were two alternatives: one is to use the committee's administrative budget to fund the surveys, which will complete nomination applications for the Stage Harbor Road and South Chatham areas; the other is to put the money in a supplemental community preservation department budget.

“We knew going in there was a mix of opinions around the state” regarding whether such study money could come out of historic preservation funds, said Community Development Director Deanna Ruffer. Harwich recently rejected such funding for the Captains' Row area. Ruffer said she added the funds to a supplemental budget for her department as a backup because there is a need to proceed with the study as soon as possible. “To leave it for another year [we] will lose significant resources,” she said, citing at least two old homes in the Stage Harbor Road neighborhood that could be in danger of demolition without further protection.

Selectmen agreed that the study needs to be done and preferred to see the funds come out of the CPA, since the pool of money exists outside of the tax levy. They asked staff to get an opinion from town counsel regarding use of CPA funds for the surveys.

In a Feb. 17 email, Finance Director Alix Heilala said town counsel agreed the project did not fall under the historic preservation function of the CPA. However, the community preservation committee is allowed an administrative budget of no more than 5 percent of its estimated revenue – or $50,000 in Chatham's case – which can be used to pay consultants or hire professions to help with something of this nature.

The community preservation committee last week tabled the request pending that advice, and will take the matter up again on Feb. 27.

Ruffer said the study will survey properties in the two neighborhoods and determine which are contributing structures to a potential National Historic Register District. Stage Harbor Road residents have been talking about a National District nomination for several years as a way to provide additional protection of the many antique homes in the neighborhood. While the town has an 18-month demolition delay bylaw, the historical commission is finding that owners who want to demolish historically significant houses are simply building that into their schedule.

“There's less and less of an inclination from property owners and builders to maintain historic structures,” she said. “By establishing new Historic Register Districts we add an additional layer of regulatory review, an additional encouragement to property owners to maintain that historic property.” Demolition or substantial renovation of a contributing structure in a National Historic Register District triggers Cape Cod Commission review, something many owners and builders are anxious to avoid. In the Old Village, one of two National Historic Register Districts in town – the Marconi Wireless Station campus is the other – the commission has found that they are better able to negotiate with owners to retain historic aspects of older homes, she said.

“It's very effective, not only in Chatham but in other communities, in terms of encouraging additional consideration for the maintenance of historic structures,” she told selectmen last week.

The process of developing the nomination takes about a year, and includes surveying property owners, a majority of whom must be in favor in order for the nomination to succeed.

Last week the community preservation committee rejected a $33,000 request for historic preservation funds for the Brown James Buck VFW Post on George Ryder Road. Committee members said they were unable to establish the historical significance of the building, and urged the post to refile its request once it is able to provide that information.

The committee did approve submitting to May's annual town meeting the following CPA funding requests: $100,000 for the Cape Cod Village housing project for adults with autism; $100,000 for the town's affordable housing trust fund; $80,000 for repairs to the foundation of the Atwood House, which members called the “most prominent historical site in town;” $29,000 to digitize the Chatham Marconi Maritime Center archives; and $22,500 to restore the Marconi Wireless Station powerhouse building.

At its Feb. 27 meeting, the committee will vote on five additional applications, all related to recreation projects.