Stage Harbor Rd. Historic District Dropped

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 – The historical commission has decided to end its effort to declare Stage Harbor Road a National Historic Register District after an overwhelming majority of property owners in the neighborhood said they opposed the nomination.

“There's no question of the historical significance of the street,” commission chairman Frank Messina said Tuesday, but without the support of a majority of the people who own the buildings determined to contribute to a district, the Massachusetts Historical Commission will not submit a National Historic Register District nomination to the Department of the Interior.

Stretching from Cross Street to Bridge Street, the 29-acre proposed Stage Harbor Road district includes 34 contributing structures, most of them Greek Revival or Cape-style homes date from the mid-1700s to the early 1900s, which a majority built in the mid-19th century.

A poll sent to 47 owners of record of properties within the proposed district found that three favored a National Historic Register District nomination while 31 were opposed. Thirteen property owners did not respond.

“It's pretty discouraging,” Messina said.

The only significant impact declaration of a National Register Historic District would have on contributing structures is to provide the historical commission with the authority to refer demolitions or changes to more than 25 percent of a structure's floor area to the Cape Cod Commission. While the historical commission can impose a demolition delay of up to 18 months on any historically significant structure, the Cape Cod Commission has the power to prohibit demolition and reject plans to diminish a building's historical nature.

Chatham currently has two National Historic Register Districts – the Marconi-RCA campus in North Chatham and the Old Village Historic District. Only one alteration to a historic home has ever been referred to the Cape Cod Commission by the local historical commission, Messina noted.

Stage Harbor Road owners have indicated concerns over potential referrals to the Cape Cod Commission and the expense involved. They also worry that a Historical District designation could lower property values; the assessing department is looking at that issue after at least two sales on Stage Harbor Road were significantly below the town's assessed values.

Two homes along the road are currently under demolition delays, and several other demolition requests have been filed in recent months. On Tuesday, the board heard a request to demolition a barn at 280 Stage Harbor Rd., which was approved.

But it wasn't the recent demolition requests alone that spurred the nomination quest. The commission did not start looking into the National Register Historic District nomination “in a vacuum,” Messina said. Eight or nine years ago, several residents of the street, worried about retaining the scenic roadway's historical integrity, raised the idea; not much more than a year ago property owners relied on the historic nature of the streetscape in opposing a town plan to place sidewalks along Stage Harbor Road. As part of the updating historic property survey forms, consultant Eric Dray also update the form for the Stage Harbor Road area, and the commission asked the Massachusetts Historical Commission to determine if the area was eligible for National Historic Register listing. In July, Betsy Friedberg, National Register Director for the state commission, agreed the area was eligible, noting many of the homes were “associated with the development of Chatham as a maritime community, and then its evolution to a summer resort community.”

A meeting with property owners in August to explain the process did not go well. “It was not a pleasant meeting,” Messina recalled. “There was a lot of pushback, immediately.”

The meeting was held at the Atwood House and Museum, whose owner, the Chatham Historical Society, cast a vote against the district nomination. Executive Director Danielle Jeanloz said the society's board voted not to support moving forward with the nomination after listening to the feedback of neighbors.

Attorney William Riley, who has represented several Stage Harbor Road property owners before the commission, said the historical commission was “manipulating the system” by not conducting the poll earlier. “Now their property is permanently devalued,” he said.

A question remained about whether the eligibility ruling means that the commission can make discretionary referrals of demolition projects to the Cape Cod Commission. Communications from Cape Cod Commission staff members indicated that a property need only be eligible for listing on the National Register for it to qualify for a discretionary referral, Messina said. Resident Norman Pacun disagreed, saying the eligibility determination requires a vote of the Massachusetts Historical Commission. A Dec. 21 email from Town Counsel Patrick Costello indicates that since the historical commission is not a permit-granting agency, it cannot make a discretionary referral to the Cape Cod Commission without approval of the board of selectmen or “a municipal agency with the 'authority to approve or grant a development permit.'”

Messina said the commission will continue to explore the issue.

Friedberg also determined that the South Chatham village was eligible for National Historic Register listing. The commission is working with the South Chatham Village Association to educate homeowners and will hold an informational meeting later in the year, Messina said.