North Adams Community Development Panel Backs Historic Districts

By Tammy DanielsiBerkshires Staff
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Community Development Committee member Eric Buddington questions fellow member Benjamin Lamb about his Local Historic District proposal.

NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The Community Development Committee on Monday night voted unanimously to suggest the City Council consider the adoption of Local Historic Districts.

Such districts under Mass General Law 40C would allow review of alterations or demolition of properties within their boundaries. The city currently has six unofficial historic districts and more than 400 documented historic properties.

The concept was brought forward last week by City Councilor Benjamin Lamb, who also sits on the Community Development Committee.

"What I'm essentially looking to do here is to utilize the ordinance we already have in place, which provides for the ability to develop the Local Historic District Study Committee so we that can actually figure out what districts in the city we would like to preserve in that way," Lamb told his committee colleagues on Monday. "We don't want to have a similar incident like what happened on Main Street a few decades ago happen again any time soon."

The creation of Local Historic Districts is outlined by Mass General Law 40C, and requires the creation of a study committee to do research, hold public hearings, determine areas and/or properties that would fall under one or more Local Historic Districts and set out criteria for preservation and maintenance of historic properties.

Lamb said some areas are very strict, like on Cape Cod where renovated buildings are required to have shingled exteriors, but "that's no where near what I have in mind."

Rather, the goal is to maintain already existing historic exteriors within a review framework that would be overseen by the Historical Commission. Even then, it would not necessarily prevent demolition, but it would provide some type of stopgap, he said.

Mayor Richard Alcombright, who attended the meeting, said he was supportive of the measure but was concerned how it could affect homeowners without the means to restore historic facades.

"How would that impact the current property owner who possibly had bought what they thought was a fixer-upper?" he said.

Council President Lisa Blackmer asked what the ground rules would be since there tended to be a "dichotomy between what is historically accurate and what people remembered things to be."

Lamb said the criteria would be determined by the Historical Commission, and that the idea was not to force people to restore historic homes but to preserve the character of existing neighborhoods.

"A lot of it would be what those buildings look like today," said Lamb, who pointed out interiors would not fall under the commission. "You're actually trying to keep it maintained to what we have now."

The creation of Local Historic Districts would actually open up federal money — grants or loans — that could help homeowners, businesses and the city in a way that listing on national and state historic registers did not.

Historical Commission Chairwoman Justyna Carlson, also in attendance, agreed, noting that at one point commercial ventures in historic buildings were able to access zero-interest for restoring properties.

Alcombright said he would like to know if historic districts would impede or promote property sales.

"The real estate market here is stressed to say the least," said the mayor. "I love this idea but does it become an impediment?"

Carlson said she frequently gets inquiries from potential buyers and real estate agents.

"I get calls all the time from prospective buyers and real estate agents on if a house is in a historic district or on the [city's historical] survey," she said. "There area lot of people interested in buying in a historic district."

Committee Chairman Wayne Wilkinson, a professional appraiser, said people tend to buy what they want, and there is a market for historic homes.

"I rarely see an effect one way or the other," he said. "There may be an easement on the facade but it often adds value."

Carlson said the most recent preservation magazine she received had a six-page article on the economic impact of historic districts. She planned on presenting it at Thursday's Historical Commission meeting at noon when Lamb is scheduled to appear. (The Historical Commission, in the City Code, is the panel named to suggest the districts be established.)

A study by the Connecticut Trust published in 2011 found that properties in local historic districts tended to increase in value faster and were worth more than comparable homes outside of districts.

Historical Commission Chairwoman Justyna Carlson and Mayor Richard Alcombright.

Lamb also noted that the Local Historic District Study Committee would have to hold public hearings as it reviewed boundaries and criteria to guide alteration requests.

Resident Richard Zona said he applauded the efforts but urged that study committee's meetings and hearings be held at times residents could attend.

"It's much more appropriate when possible to hold these meetings in the evening," he said.

"The next step is for us to work with the mayor and some of the organizations that need representation on the committee," said Lamb, who suggested a committee of five. "That feels like a manageable number to get around a table and get some work done."

The panel would then meet with the Massachusetts Historic Commission and go from there. The secretary of state's office created a flowchart for how the process would work.

Should the City Council vote to approve, it would solicit committee nominations from the Historical Society, the Board of Realtors and American Institute of Architects, as required by law. Should those bodies fail to respond, the mayor would put forth nominations in their stead along with two or more individuals for council approval.

"A lot of the groundwork has been done," Carlson, noting the number of historic districts and properties the Historical Commission has been documenting for years. "It makes it so much easier for the Local Historic District to be done."

Tags: community development,   historic district,   historic preservation,   historical commission,   

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