Demolition Of 'Historically Significant' House Approved By Zoning Board

By: Tim Wood

The house at 372 Stage Harbor Rd. was included on a draft map of a historic district for the neighborhood. TOWN OF CHATHAM GRAPHIC

100-year-old Home Within Proposed Stage Harbor Road Historic District

by Tim Wood

CHATHAM – Even though it was determined to be historically significant, a Stage Harbor Road home was cleared for demolition by the zoning board of appeals last week.

It remains uncertain whether the proposal to raze the nearly 100-year-old house at 391 Stage Harbor Rd. will be referred to the Cape Cod Commission by the historical commission, which earlier this year imposed an 18-month demolition delay on the structure.

The historical commission is currently polling Stage Harbor Road property owners on whether they support a National Historic Register District for the neighborhood. The Massachusetts Historical Commission has determined that the area is eligible for listing on the National Register, which the local commission says allows it to make discretionary referrals of proposed demolitions to the Cape Cod Commission.

While the local commission can impose a demolition delay on an historically significant structure, the Cape Cod Commission has the authority to prohibit the razing of historic homes eligible for National Register listing.

Owners Robert and Elizabeth Potter were before the zoning board last Thursday seeking special permits to demolish the existing structure and replace it with a new home. Their attorney, William Litchfield, said the couple spent “six figures” on maintenance of the house in the 17 years since they purchased it but that its condition didn't warrant further investment.

Architect Chris Cannon said the building was “pretty deficient by today's code standards and really was going to require more work than they were willing to take on to maintain it.” The replacement he designed will have three bedrooms, just like the existing structure, but will be “a little bit more livable.”

The homeowners' representatives disagreed with Historical Commission Chairman Frank Messina regarding historic significance of the building, which was built around 1920. Although nominally in the Queen Anne architectural style, Litchfield said there's nothing distinctive about the house, and it does not meet the criteria for designation as a historically significant building. It has no architectural significance, was not built by a prominent builder or architect, and is not associated with any historic events or people, he said.

“They were interesting but not historically significant,” he said.

The purpose of the historical commission's 18-month demolition delay on the house is to provide time to either find a way to save the house or develop an appropriate design for a new structure, Litchfield said. In this case, Cannon designed a Greek Revival-style building that will fit in better with the other historical homes on Stage Harbor Road than the existing house, he said.

“The commission is well meaning,” Litchfield said, “but very frankly, sometimes there can be overreaching. And I think overreaching is what's at issue here.”

Messina disagreed, saying the building was one of the contributing structures included in the Massachusetts Historical Commission's determination that the Stage Harbor Road area was eligible for National Historic listing. While the replacement proposed by the owners mimics other historic homes in the area, it is “still not the historic structure” and loss of the original would impact the integrity of the proposed district.

The commission must decide whether or not to refer the demolition proposal to the commission before the delay expires around February 2019, Messina said.

The owners are willing to continue talks with the historical commission, Litchfield said, although “We have devoted four years to this proposal” and feel it is the best way forward. If it is referred to the Cape Cod Commission, “so be it; we will deal with that,” and probably spend “many thousands of dollars fairly needlessly.”

Zoning board members said the proposed design was an improvement, and several members took issue with the historical commission's delay. David Veach said he felt the 18-month delay was punitive and that referring the project to the Cape Cod Commission “would not serve the interests of that commission or the interests of the town, and I think it would actually do a disservice to the town.”

“This design speaks to that neighborhood so much better than the existing structure does,” said Chairman David Nixon. “It's a shame that folks who live there can't control their fate.

Messina said later it was “completely out of order” and not germane to the issue before them for ZBA members to criticize the historical commission's decisions.

At the commission's Dec. 19 meeting, he pointed out that demolition delays have been imposed infrequently. Messina said since 2008, out of 206 applications, demolition delays were imposed just 21 times. Twenty-six of those came from the Old Village National Historic District, and only one of those was referred to the Cape Cod Commission. “It's not like every house that comes to us we're imposing a delay,” Messina said.

The ZBA unanimously approved the special permit, which also includes the demolition and reconstruction of a garage and cottage on the property. Those buildings are not historic and that work will go ahead while the issues are worked out with the historical commission, Litchfield said. Even with the special permit, the main home cannot be demolished until the demolition delay expires or is lifted by the historical commission.