Preserving Your Neighborhood
By Mitchell Lowe, A.I.A., NCARB, LEED AP BD+C
Within the next several decades many towns in eastern Massachusetts will be celebrating the 400th Anniversary of their founding by European settlers. Half of the twenty-five oldest towns in the United States are in Massachusetts, all founded by 1631. The historic character and heritage of our towns is strong and vibrant throughout the Commonwealth.
Some towns still contain many of the original houses, streets, and village greens that were established as part of the early settlements by the Massachusetts Bay Company. Ipswich, Massachusetts has over sixty houses that remain from the ‘First Period’ settlement of the region, the most of any town in the United States. ‘First Period’ houses are defined as those with major structures built before 1725. The designs of these houses are part of the classic ‘New England Saltbox’ style, and many are located within several blocks of each other in the downtown area. The layout of streets, open spaces, and the scale, massing and details of these houses helped create precedence for newer houses in the area, many of which are also hundreds of years old.
What would happen if a homeowner or developer wanted to remove or substantially alter a house that is 350 years old? What would they put back in its place? What if the new house was much bigger than the others around it? What if it did not match the scale, rhythm, and respect the streetscape of the house that replaced it or of its neighbors?
Many people in towns and cities throughout the Commonwealth assume their towns have already made laws that prevent the demolition or major alteration of historic homes, and that historic districts exist to preserve them. However, some of the legal statutes that are in place are weak and cannot prevent the destruction of buildings that provide so much history to a town, the Commonwealth and the nation.
So what remedies are available to town planners and residents that will allow existing houses to remain and new structures or alterations to be in keeping with the rest of their town?
- The National Register of Historic Places provides formal recognition of a property’s historical,
architectural, or archeological significance. Placement on the register allows the property’s owner to be eligible for grants and certain tax credits and special consideration when applying the building code. However, National Register listing places no obligations on private property owners. There are no restrictions on the use, treatment, transfer, or disposition of the property and structures.
- Massachusetts allows towns to enact and enforce a ‘Demolition Delay Bylaw.’ This statute allows the community to delay for a certain period of time the whole or partial demolition of any structure greater than 75 years old. However, it only gains the town time to convince the owner to seek alternate solutions to the demolition of the structure. It does not allow the town to consider alternative development options for the property, nor can it prevent the ultimate demolition of the structure.
- Massachusetts also allows towns to enact and enforce ‘Architectural Preservation Districts.’ Inclusion of properties in the district grants towns the power to review and approve the demolition and alteration of any structures in the district, as well as the construction of new buildings. While allowing the town to review items such as scale, massing, and siting, it does not give the town the right to rule on items such as color, details, and roof, door or window types. Many towns find this to be an acceptable compromise between the shortcomings of the Demolition Delay Bylaw and the over burdensome requirements of a Historic District.
- Massachusetts and many other states enact and enforce Historic Districts. Inclusion of properties in these districts gives the town the power to dictate and oversee almost every detail of a building, including demolition, new construction, alterations, as well as the selection of colors, trim shapes and sizes, signage, roof, window and door details. The districts can sometimes even force the maintenance and correction of items that are found not to be in compliance with the standards.
- Often times, towns will work with property owners to allow covenants to be placed on buildings that require approval to make any modification of the entire structure or specific details on the structure. These covenants become part of the deed to the property, and once enacted, cannot be changed, and are passed down from one owner to the next.
Do you live in a historic neighborhood or town? If so, what would you do if someone wanted to tear down or substantial alter your favorite little house around the corner? Work with your town to enact and enforce a demolition delay bylaw, architectural preservation district, or a historical district.
Photos courtesy Gordon Harris, Bike New England