Preservation Incentives: Zoning Bylaw Changes Examined To Stem Loss Of Historic Buildings

By: Tim Wood

Topics: Historic preservation

Preservationists frequently site the demolition of this house at 271 Stage Harbor Rd. in calling for stricter protections on historic buildings. The original 150-year-old home (top) was torn down last year and a new, much larger structure is now under construction. Officials hope that a zoning amendment offering incentives to preserve historic homes on site will encourage owners to restore old structures rather than tear them down. FILE PHOTO

CHATHAM – Under the town's demolition delay bylaw, the historical commission can postpone the razing of a building determined to be historically significant by up to 180 days. Often an owner works with the commission to find a way to renovate and restore the building or move it to a different location where it can be preserved.

But just as often, an owner waits out the delay period and knocks the building down when it expires. That's happened at least twice recently with historic structures on Stage Harbor Road, much to the frustration of preservation officials.

The demolition delay bylaw “works to a point,” said commission chairman Frank Messina. “But we have to do something else.”

That “something else” may involve amending the zoning bylaw to include incentives for property owners willing to preserve historic structures. A draft historic preservation zoning amendment developed for the town by the Cape Cod Commission in 2014 is being dusted off and will be reviewed by both the historical commission and planning board in the coming weeks.

The draft bylaw proposes a town-wide overlay district that allows waivers from some zoning restrictions and provides incentives for the preservation of historically or architecturally significant buildings. Special permits would be issued by the planning board, or another entity, allowing relief from dimensional and parking requirements and additional density above that allowed in the underlying district.

The restrictions could only be relaxed if the modifications are necessary to maintain the historical significance of the building on the site on which it was originally constructed, or if the building would be demolished or inappropriately altered without the relief. The bylaw would only apply to buildings that are 75 years old or older in whole or in part, are in a national, state or local historic district or have been determined to be historically significant by the historical commission, the same criteria used under the demolition delay bylaw.

The draft bylaw was developed by the commission as part of a visioning study it conducted of the Route 28 corridor in 2014, said Principal Planner Aly Sabatino. At the time the planning board opted to pursue other zoning bylaw changes and the historic preservation amendment was put on the back burner. Representatives of the commission were scheduled to meet with the planning board this week to review the study and consider moving forward with some of its recommendations.

About a half dozen towns in the state have similar bylaws, said Sarah Korjeff, preservation planner with the Cape Cod Commission. Like Chatham, other communities were dealing with the demolition of historic homes to make way for new, larger houses, and the zoning allowances were seen as ways to provide financial incentives to preserve old buildings.

Financial incentives are key, said historical commission member Tim Smith, who is a builder. The prohibitive cost of renovation and restoration vs. the cost of new construction is often given as a reason for demolishing older buildings, he said.

“Even if you educate the public, I still think it's a lot about financial incentives,” he said.

Among the specific incentives suggested in the draft zoning amendment are providing flexibility regarding site coverage, allowing up to 10 percent greater coverage than in the underlying district; setbacks, lot frontage and minimum lot size could be modified; parking requirements could be reduced by up to 25 percent; and one additional dwelling unit could be allowed for each 1,500 square feet preserved in an historically significant buildings.

Those waivers could allow an owner to add a modern addition to an historic home, for instance, in situations where there isn't enough lot area under existing zoning.

Other historic preservation incentives suggested by the Cape Cod Commission include a streamlined permitting process; reduced permitting fees, alternative means of meeting fire and safety requirements; and restricting access to variances or other development incentives for properties with historical homes proposed for demolition.

The purpose of the last suggestion is to encourage owners to preserve historical buildings by preventing them from seeking variances or other relief for construction of new homes following demolition. Ideally, an owner would preserve the historic homes, taking advantage of the incentives now under consideration, rather than face further restrictions by bulldozing the building, Korjeff said.

The incentives in the draft amendment favor on-site preservation, noted attorney William Litchfield. While that's ideal, Chatham's high property values, especially near the water, could exact pressure on owners to move old houses, and the zoning amendment could be modified to “enable better outcomes for houses that could be moved elsewhere,” he suggested.

The draft bylaw allows the special permit granting authority to consider incentives for historical homes that are moved “if no other preservation measures are practical or reasonable on the existing site.”

Messina said he'd like to be able to put the bylaw amendment before voters at a fall special town meeting, if one is held. Director of Community Development Kathleen Donovan said that's possible.

“I think it's time to move something like this forward, if the planning board is willing to do so,” she said. she asked the commission to develop comments on the draft for submission to the planning board as soon as possible. The commission is scheduled to meet Monday, and Messina said the topic would be on the agenda.

“This is a big deal, I recognize that,” Messina said. “But we need to get the ball rolling.”