SOUTH CHATHAM – Residents gathered at the historic South Chatham Village Hall Saturday to hear about the possibility of establishing National Historic Register District running from the South Chatham Cemetery at the Harwich town line to Cockle Cove Road.
Local historic commission chair Frank Messina worked with Cape Cod Commission preservation specialist Sarah Korjeff and Eric Dray, a historical preservation consultant, to organize the meeting, mandated as one of the steps toward the nomination. Voters at last month's annual town meeting approved community preservation funds to cover the cost of preparing an eligibility application for possible National Historic Register Districts in South Chatham and the Stage Harbor Road area.
An eligibility determination for the proposed district was sent to the Massachusetts Historical Commission in April. Messina said he anticipates a decision soon. He added that firm boundaries for the district have yet to be established.
A brief synopsis of the proposal was given and questions were taken from residents in attendance. The aim is to prevent demolition or substantial alteration of buildings more than 50 years old that are considered contributing structures to the district, though the entire neighborhood would be included.
“When a historic district is created, you don’t carve out the bits that aren’t historic,” Dray said. Of the 110 buildings within the proposed district, 70 are considered “contributing” structures.
To be a National Register Historic District is to be a nationally recognized area worthy of preservation. The National Register is overseen by the National State Park Service. The “voice” of the National Register is the Massachusetts Historical Commission.
According to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, if a building is a contributing part of a National Historic District, any “substantial alteration” or demolition automatically triggers review by the “funding or permitting source,” the local historic commission and the Cape Cod Commission. The designation usually carries no teeth, but the commission has the power to regulate significant changes.
“The irony of it,” said Dray, “is that the National Register has the least amount of actual power on general order. if you weren't in Cape Cod, and you were put in a National Register District, you could tear your house down the next day."
The Cape Cod Commission automatically reviews any building that meets the historic criteria when demolition or “substantial alteration” is proposed.
“It was meant to be an honorary, sort of designation of pride,” Dray said of the National Districts. “Regulations that were in place were meant to protect you as a homeowner,” by requiring historic review and mitigation in projects involving federal or state funds. “But we're in Cape Cod, so it's a little different with the Cape Cod Commission.”
Of the 16 people attended the meeting, five lived within the proposed district. Questions included ramifications for resident homeowners. One woman asked about the “pros and cons” of a district, stating she previously experienced costly restrictions because of historical ordinances.
Dray and Korjeff explained the National Historic Register District status is concerned with the preservation of “contributing” buildings. If the resident’s single-family home is a contributing structure, demolition or substantial alteration (changing up to 25 percent of the cumulative area) would trigger review. If the building is within the district but is considered a “non-contributing building,” it will not require review.
Once eligibility is determined, a vote will take place.
“Quite honestly, do we want to be a National Register District? It’s up to us. It’s up to the people in the district on how we want to proceed,” Messina said.
Chatham currently has two National Register Historic Districts: the Old Village and Marconi Wireless Campus. The Marconi district is 13 acres, consisting of a the Chatham Marconi Maritime Center, several residences and wireless antenna towers. Chatham’s Old Village was “overwhelmingly” voted a National Register District by residents in 2001.
Dray is confident that eligibility for the South Chatham District will be approved by the Massachusetts Historical Commission, which could happen within a month of submission.
“I would be gobsmacked if they didn’t say at least some part was significant. It’s just going to be what the boundary actually is,” he said.
“Everyone’s question is ‘where am I on this map?’” Messina added. “That answer is not available yet.”