Neglect Equals Negligence


“Demolition by neglect,” the practice of allowing a building to deteriorate to the point that renovation or restoration is not practical or financially feasible, received a much-deserved calling out last week by members of the Harwich Historic District And Historical Commission. The commission agreed to issue a demolition delay on the circa 1870 structure at 52 Route 28, known as the Capt. George Winchell Baker House, even though its owner argued that the building was too far gone to save.

But even the demolition delay may not save this once-stately captain's house, one of many along the stretch of Route 28 in West Harwich being considered for nomination as a National Historic Register District. The owner apparently has a buyer waiting in the wings willing to wait out the one-year delay, after which the house can be bulldozed despite its contribution to the heritage of the town.

The problem is being faced in every Cape town: the escalating value of property has made land more economically valuable than the sometimes neglected homes they hold. Culturally and historically, however, many – although certainly not all – of these homes have an immeasurable value to their community. Unfortunately, standards of living have changed, and these days people value modern spaces and conveniences over the charm, craftsmanship and integrity of an older house. Many also either fear over-regulation or loss of control over historic preservation measures. We saw that with Stage Harbor Road in Chatham. Property owners rejected a National Historic Register District, and we are now seeing the fallout, with one historic home slated to go under the wrecking ball and others sure to follow.

We don't want that to happen with the proposed Captain's Row district in West Harwich. And the only way to ensure that the loss of historic homes can be stopped is through a historic district designation. Anytime a change is proposed to 25 percent or more of the floor area of a contributing structure within such a district – including demolition – the local historical commission can refer the project to the Cape Cod Commission. While the authority of local commissions is limited to delaying demolition, the Cape Cod Commission can prohibit demolition, full stop. South Chatham appears headed in this direction, and we urge those behind the Captain's Row proposal to accelerate the process so as to avoid further “demolition by neglect” of other historically significant structures. Our local towns should also look at ways to enforce building codes before historic structures reach the point that they are falling down by being ignored – true negligence, we believe. While respecting private property rights, towns must also protect their cultural and historical heritage, because that's what makes each different and special.