Eligibility Determination Opens Stage Harbor Rd. Homes To Commission Review

By: Tim Wood

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 – Even if the Stage Harbor Road area is never officially designated a National Historic Register District, demolitions of historically significant homes along the roadway can still be referred to the Cape Cod Commission for regulatory review.

Jon Idman, chief regulatory officer of the commission, said in an email to Community Development Director Kathleen Donovan that because the Massachusetts Historical Commission (MHC) has determined that the area is eligible for National Historic Register listing, the historical commission can make a discretionary referral of any project that involves demolition or substantial alteration of a contributing structure. He specifically addressed an historic Stage Harbor home that is currently under a demolition delay, stating that if referred by the Chatham Historical Commission and accepted for review by the commission, the demolition could be reviewed as a development of regional impact under the agency's regional policy plan's heritage preservation and community character section.

Based on informal responses from the 46 homeowners within the proposed Stage Harbor Road district, a majority does not favor a formal National Historic Register District nomination, Historical Commission Chairman Frank Messina said. Either directly or indirectly, 28 property owners indicated via email that they are not in favor of a district.

“It's a little disheartening, but that's a fact of life,” he said at last week's commission meeting.

The commission still intends to conduct a more formal straw poll of owners of property along what is said to be the town's oldest thoroughfare, lined with dozens of historic 18th and 19th century homes. Messina said town staff are investigating several issues – such as who participates in the case of condo ownership and whether a failure to respond is considered a yes or no vote – before finalizing the straw poll. He said additional information may convince some homeowners to support a district nomination. If a majority of property owners are not in favor, the district nomination would not move forward.

“When we first started this, there seemed to be more support,” he said, noting that a few years ago, several homeowners had lawn signs in support of a historic district for the street.

Norman Pacun urged the commission to provide more information to property owners before conducting the straw poll. Pacun was heavily involved in the creation of a National Historic Register District in the Old Village and said the Old Village Association spent two and a half years discussing the details of a district so owners would understand what's involved.

The commission held an informational meeting for Stage Harbor Road property owners in August, and some have requested a second session, Messina said. Pacun endorsed the idea.

“Until they understand, what you may be getting is views based on information that's not complete,” he said.

Under a National Historic Preservation District, a demolition or substantial alteration of a contributing structure would automatically be referred to the Cape Cod Commission for review, said commission Historic Preservation Specialist Sarah Korjeff. “One of the resources on the Cape we're charged to protect is historic resources,” she noted. Because of the MHC eligibility determination, demolition or alteration of contributing structures along Stage Harbor Road can be referred to the agency, but the commission would have to vote to accept the referral, she said. This isn't a situation unique to Chatham, she said; other towns on the Cape have resources identified as eligible but not listed on the National Register.

“This is something that's happening at many locations around the Cape,” she said.

There are currently two homes along Stage Harbor Road under demolition delay. Both could be referred to the Cape Cod Commission for review, Korjeff said, but that would have to happen before the delay expires. While delaying demolition is the only recourse the local commission has to preventing the loss of a historic structure, the Cape Cod Commission has the authority to prevent demolition.

Pacun was skeptical that the determination of eligibility for Stage Harbor Road, which came from the MHC director and was not approved by the full commission, was binding. “I don't think you have the authority to do what [the Cape Cod Commission] says you do,” he said.

Korjeff said local towns can request a discretionary referral for project that does not meet Cape Cod Commission review thresholds, but individual residential buildings can only be referred if determined to be eligible for National Historic Register listing.

The questions raised at last week's meeting will be discussed with staff before moving forward with the straw poll, Messina said.