Followup Planned After Tepid Response To Stage Harbor Historic District

By: Tim Wood

Topics: Historic preservation

This 1860-era house at 271 Stage Harbor Rd. is one of two on the street currently under a demolition delay. After opposition from neighbors, the historical commission this week decided not to move forward with a National Historic Register District nomination for the area. FILE PHOTO

CHATHAM – After several Stage Harbor Road property owners expressed skepticism about a National Historic Register District designation for the neighborhood, the historical commission plans to send a letter answering questions raised at an informational meeting Saturday and taking a straw poll to determine support for the designation.

The Massachusetts Historical Commission has already determined that the Stage Harbor Road area is eligible for designation as a National Historic Register District, historical commission chairman Frank Messina said. Such a designation would allow the Cape Cod Commission to step in and prevent the demolition of buildings deemed to contribute to the district's historical integrity.

Among the dozen or so of the 45 homeowners within the proposed district who attended Saturday's meeting, the consensus appeared to be against a historic district. But Messina said the commission has heard from at least as many who support a district, and the letter – which will be sent by certified mail in response to criticism that some homeowners did not receive a previous mailing – will ask for an informal response of support or opposition, something suggested at Saturday's session.

“We feel we have a good number of people who want to proceed,” he said.

The letter will also answer several questions raised Saturday, such as the inclusion of accessory buildings and the exact boundaries of a proposed district.

“There are things we need to clear up, there are answers to questions that need to be researched and provided to all the residents,” Messina said after a meeting of the commission Tuesday.

Many at Saturday's meeting said they did not see the need for a district and were critical of the process, most of which, Messina pointed out, is dictated by the National Park Service, which maintains the National Register of Historic Places.

“Why are we doing this?” asked Robert Potter, whose home at 391 Stage Harbor Rd. was recently placed under a demolition delay by the historical commission. “What's in it for us? Why would we want to support this?”

Roger Smythe said a number of homes within the proposed district have been renovated in recent years and are still categorized as contributing structures. “It almost looks like it's working already,” he said of review processes currently in place. “I don't know if we need an extra layer because you're doing a good job protecting it.”

“Stage Harbor Road residents are tired of town boards and commissions trying to take our property rights away,” said Anne Timpson, referring to the fight between the town and Stage Harbor Road owners over placement of sidewalks on the street, a proposal ultimate killed by the board of selectmen.

The idea of a historic district for the road, one of the town's oldest streets, has been discussed for a few years, Messina said, and was originally brought up by residents of the neighborhood, some of whom had lawn signs made up supporting a district.

“There was a lot of dialog over the last two years,” he said.

In determining the neighborhood was eligible for listing on the National Historic Register, Betsy Friedberg, National Register Director for the Massachusetts Historical Commission, wrote that the area features “largely intact houses from the 18th through the early 20th century, many associated with the development of Chatham as a maritime community, and then its evolution to a summer resort community.”

Currently the only authority the commission has to prevent the loss of historic structures is the town's demolition delay bylaw, but that cannot prevent buildings from being torn down, Messina said. An owner can simply wait out the delay period – up to 18 months – and then demolish the building. There are two demolition delays in place on Stage Harbor Road now, Messina noted, with a third coming before the commission Sept. 19. Unless the commission can negotiate an agreement to save all or part of those homes, they'll be lost. Norman Pacun, an Old Village resident who helped secure the National Historic Register District designations for that neighborhood and the Marconi property in Chathamport, said losses of individual structures can have a cumulative impact on the integrity of the proposed district.

“If you have more than one, two or three, you may well lose the ambiance of Stage Harbor Road,” he said.

A National Historic District designation, however, provides an extra level of review on projects involving substantial alteration of a contributing structure through the Cape Cod Commission. Commission preservationist Sarah Korjeff said most of the review of proposals within historic districts takes place at the local historical commission level, but the commission has the option to refer a project to the commission, and any demolition of a contributing structure automatically goes before the agency.

A National Historic District designation creates stability, she said, protecting the historic resources of the district and the community.

“It doesn't mean you can't make changes to your building,” she told the homeowners.

There are 45 properties in the district, said Eric Dray, the commission's historical consultant; 34 contain buildings considered contributing structures. The remaining 11 are either newer homes or panhandle lots that have little frontage along the street. Owners of all 45 of the contributing properties can vote to support or oppose the district.

Homeowners criticized the notification process, saying many received letters about Saturday's meeting at their year-round addresses and only heard about the session from neighbors. Messina said the commission has no other means of notification other than the address on file with the town's assessing department, but also went further by handing out notices door to door. Messina pointed out that at least 30 of the owners are not full-time residents.

Under the process set out by the National Park Service, once a district is nominated, property owners receive formal notification and can object in writing; owners who don't respond are assumed to be in favor, Dray said. If a majority don't want the district, the process ends. Some of the homeowners felt the process should be more inclusive.

Cynthia Marsh said whether a majority of homeowners favor the district should be determined before the town spends money on the developing the nomination. The commission received community preservation funds at town meeting for the Stage Harbor Road and South Chatham historic district nominations; Messina estimated it would cost about $15,000 for the Stage Harbor Road nomination.

It will be at least six months before a nomination is submitted. “You'll have plenty of time,” Dray told the homeowners. “This is the very beginning of the process.”

The South Chatham Village Association will discuss the proposal for a National Register District in that neighborhood at its annual meeting Sept. 9. A formal meeting of owners within the proposed district will be held later, Messina said; the commission is still waiting for clarification on the district boundary from the Massachusetts Historical District.

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