State To Hold Informational Meeting On South Chatham Village Historic Register District

By: Tim Wood

This draft map shows properties within the proposed South Chatham National Historic Register District. The shaded area shows overlap with the town's historic business district. COURTESY OF TOWN OF CHATHAM

CHATHAM – After years of preparation, the nomination of the South Chatham Village area as a National Register Historic District is nearing fruition.

On Wednesday, May 25 the Massachusetts Historical Commission will hold a public informational meeting on the nomination at the annex beginning at 10:30 a.m. The commission's state review board will then consider the nomination on Wednesday, June 8 at 1 p.m.

If approved by the review board, the nomination will be forwarded to the National Park Service, which maintains the National Historic Register, for final ratification.

“We're at the five yard line,” said Frank Messina, chair of the historical commission, which sponsored the nomination. “We've been answering questions for the last two years, so this is a long process.”

Messina will host the May 25 session, which will also include Sarah Korjeff, historic preservation specialist with the Cape Cod Commission, and Eric Dray, the consultant who authored the historic district nomination.

This is the second attempt at security National Historic Register status for the South Chatham village. Messina said the South Chatham Village Association attempted to develop a nomination about 20 years ago, but it did not move forward. The association worked with the commission this time around to educate and gain the support of property owners and has endorsed the nomination.

If approved, the South Chatham village would be the town's third National Historic Register District, joining the Old Village and the Marconi/RCA campus.

The district covers most properties along Route 28 from the Harwich town line to just east of Meetinghouse Road. It extends south from Route 28 around Pleasant Bay and Forest Beach roads. The district is characterized by a “tightly knit mix of residential, commercial and institutional buildings,” according to a letter from Messina to residents in the proposed district.

Although the district include significant 18th and 19th century houses and shops, the state commission was more interested in South Chatham's social and commercial historical significance, Messina said. The nomination focuses on the area's maritime heritage, including fishing, salt making and fish drying and flaking. Formally named South Chatham in 1862 when a post office opened in the village, it grew to be the town's second largest village by the late 19th century.

There are 117 contributing and 31 non-contributing buildings in the proposed district.

Practically, a National Register District designation would have little impact on most property owners, Messina said. It would trigger additional review for any federal or state project within the district that receives federal funds and could make some properties eligible for federal tax benefits and grant, but according to the Massachusetts Historical Commission, a property owner “may do anything with it that he/she wishes, unless state or federal funds, permits, or licenses are used, or unless some other regional and/or local ordinance or policy is in effect.”

That last caveat applies locally, as any changes to a contributing structure of more than 25 percent of floor area could, at the discretion of the town historical commission, be referred to the Cape Cod Commission for review. But the provision has rarely been invoked in Chatham, said Messina. In his nearly two decades on the historical commission, there have only been a couple of projects within the Old Village Historic District that have been referred to the Cape Cod Commission, he said.

“This is effectively a recognition of the village as a National Register site, and we're very proud of that,” said Messina, a South Chatham resident.

Part of the district overlaps the town's historic business district. As a local historic district approved by the town and state legislature, it will continue to have authority if a National Register designation is approved, Messina said.

According to the Massachusetts Historical Commission, property owners within the proposed district have the right to object to the listing by submitting a notarized statement. A simple majority is needed to approve a district nomination, Messina said. If the keeper of the National Register approves the listing, the district is automatically added to the State Register of Historic Places.

Details on how to attend the June 8 review board meeting will be posted at www.sec.sate.ma.us/mhc closer to the date of the session. A link to join the May 25 hearing virtually can be found on the town's website under the public meeting calendar.