Orleans Commission Holds Off On Historic District Discussions

By: Debra Lawless


ORLEANS – The Orleans Historical Commission put off until its Dec. 9 meeting a vote on when focus groups will be convened to discuss the proposed East Orleans Historic District.

During the virtual Nov. 12 meeting, Commissioner Joan Nix said the focus groups, which are anticipated to have up to eight participants each, will initially be held for only property owners within the proposed historic district that runs down Main Street from Route 28 to the Barley Neck Inn. The groups will meet remotely at various evening, day and weekend times scheduled to accommodate as many property owners as possible. The one-hour sessions will open with one or two commissioners making a 10-minute presentation followed by the property owners hashing out the proposal.

Stacie Smith, the consultant/facilitator for the historic district project, will summarize the “issues and questions,” Nix said. The goal is that “we want to know what other people think, not that we want to push our goals.”

By declaring the scenic, 1.2-mile stretch of road lined with 19th century houses a historic district, the homes will be protected from teardowns and significant alterations. Currently the commission can impose only a 12-month demolition delay on a historic structure that an owner applies to tear down. The town currently has 52 houses built prior to 1797.

Commissioner John Harter said he thought that the public needed to be better educated before the focus groups begin. “I sense we are seeking information from an uneducated populace,” he said. He added that the property owners should be informed about what a historic district means before asking them what they think. “Not that I’m not interested in what the residents want,” he said.

Commission Chairman Ron Petersen pointed out that the group has already hosted three public information sessions with upwards of 80 residents attending one session.

Select Board Vice Chair Mefford Runyon suggested that the commission bring in local non-profits to send a message that their members back the historic district project.

Commissioners debated which of three historic districts might be most suitable for East Orleans — a local historic district, an architectural conservation district or a National Register district. The board previously agreed, either informally or through a vote, to pursue an architectural conservation district under the state’s home rule provisions. According to the commission’s November 2019 Community Preservation Act application for funds for a consultant, “this status would enable the town to prevent the demolition of historic structures in the district and to prevent inappropriate additions or new construction that would impair the historic streetscape.”

An architectural conservation district designation must be approved by a majority of voters at a town meeting. Currently, Orleans is one of the only towns on Cape Cod without a historic district outside of a small section of Route 6A. Three times in the past 25 years townspeople at the annual meeting have voted down a proposed historic district.

“We have a tough road, and we can’t just forget that,” Petersen said. “There’s resistance to historical preservation here that we need to address.” He added that education is the only available tool.

Harter noted that for some people, the idea of a historic district “is going to be awkward and uncomfortable,” and that the coronavirus pandemic is making selling the historic district even harder. But if a vaccine is on the horizon, “it makes sense to pause the push until we can get together in a room” rather than in a virtual meeting.

But Associate Member Hilary Young noted a downside to any delay. With real estate sales “at an all-time high,” newcomers are flocking to town. “We’re going to have a lot of people who don’t care about the history who are going to become taxpayers and voters,” she said.

Petersen agreed that the town’s demographics are changing rapidly. “Orleans has a history that’s so unbelievably rich and worth preserving, and we need to get that out to new people,” he said.

Nix argued that convening the focus groups should precede bringing in partners. “We have to find out what people want,” she said. “I’m feeling very defeated during this meeting… I’m concerned because I feel like we’re not moving forward.”

Young said she would like to break the process down into simple steps and work out a timeline.

“This has been a long road, it’s been a couple of years,” Petersen said in concluding the 90-minute discussion. “I don’t think that taking time to be sure we’re all on the same page and that we’re moving ahead in the right direction is a bad thing.”

In other matters, the group agreed it would like to offer input on the design of the affordable housing project at 107 Main St. to make sure it is “consistent with the historical streetscape,” Petersen said. He added that the Masonic Hall currently on that site is “not consistent with the streetscape.” But, he said, “we’re not looking at any kind of an adversarial issue.”

The group also heard an update on repairs to the windmill whose tail pole is rotted. Replacing the tail pole, repairing windows that are falling out and repainting chipped paint is estimated to cost $10,000.