Zoning Incentives Investigated To Preserve Historic Buildings

By: Tim Wood

Topics: Historic preservation

The historical commission hopes that zoning incentives might help save historical homes like this one on Stage Harbor Road, which was demolished to make way for a new house. FILE PHOTO

CHATHAM – The historical commission is looking at using zoning incentives—and disincentives—to encourage preservation of historical structures.

Possible changes to the zoning bylaw include flexibility in dimensional regulations, allowing smaller lots than allowed to be created for historic structures and restrictions on lots where historic structures are not preserved.

The concepts grew out of work the Cape Cod Commission was doing with the planning board, said commission historic preservation planner Sarah Korjeff. The board did not pursue the ideas, but they were picked up by the historical commission, which is seeking ways to stem the loss of historic buildings.

The proposals are drawn from bylaws in other communities, some of which have been in place for a decade or more. Korjeff said Andover, “the gold standard,” has preserved 15 historic homes in the past decade through zoning incentives, while more than half a dozen structures were saved in both Framingham and Hopkinton.

Dimensional standards such as setbacks, frontage, minimum lot size and building coverage could be waived or reduced to facilitate preservation of historic structures, Korjeff told the historical commission recently. These could be allowed through special permits granted by either the planning board or zoning board of appeals, and the bylaw could set specific standards regarding eligible historic buildings.

Another option would be to allow an historic building to be moved to a lot that is smaller than allowed in the zoning district. Often owners of historic homes want to build new, larger structures; allowing them to move the historic home to a smaller lot, perhaps subdividing their property, would preserve the historic structure, she said. The commission's GIS staff is working to develop a map showing lots in town with historic structures that could be subdivided, with the new lot having at least 50 percent of the required minimum lot size. As an example, she referred to a lot on bridge street with 1.6 acres in an R40 zone which could host a historic building lot of 20,000 square feet and a new 50,000-square-foot lot for a new home.

The graphics being prepared will also show existing historic properties that already meet the maximum building coverage regulations and those that have additional land that would allow a separate lot.

It will be up to the commission to determine which districts the incentives should apply to, said Principal Planner Aly Sabatino. For instance, it may not make sense to apply the regulations in the historic business district, since the historic business district commission has the authority to prevent the demolition of historic structures.

Possible disincentives could be to limit a structure replacing a significant historical building to the original footprint, Korjeff said, which would prevent the replacement of a smaller historic home with a larger new one.

Although he'd like to be able to put provisions such as these before voters in May, historical commission chair Frank Messina said it may take more time to fine tune the measures and get support.

“This is going to be a long haul,” he said. “This is not going to be simple.”

Selectman Dean Nicastro commended the commission for exploring the options and urged them to “be bold. There's a serious problem out there. We've seen it.”

Messina said he's sent copies of a draft of the incentives to attorneys who regularly appear before the commission as well as some local builders. “We might as well get people on board ahead of time,” he said. He also asked Sabatino to set up a meeting with community development staff, planning board and historical commission members to make sure everyone is aware of what is under consideration. Nicastro urged him to keep the board of selectmen in the loop as well.

This past Monday, Messina asked the selectmen to include a discussion of the draft bylaw on its Dec. 23 agenda. Korjeff is scheduled to return to the commission on Dec. 17 with the graphics, which will then be available for the selectmen to view as well. The discussion will also include how to proceed to get maximum buy-in, Messina said.

“I don't want it to be coming to town meeting just from the historical commission,” he said. “I prefer to use the process where it's reviewed by the planning board and board of selectmen before going to town meeting.”