Letter: Historical Commission on the Demolition Delay bylaw

by beth on March 25, 2015

[Ed note: My Southborough accepts signed letters to the editor submitted by Southborough residents. Letters may be emailed to mysouthborough@gmail.com.]

To the Editor:

I wanted to let you and your readers know that the official warrant article text is now available here: http://southboroughhistoricalcommission.weebly.com/

Also included is a one-sheet that takes you through the process.

If I may, I’d like to respond to a question that has come up several times in various forms: “If the Historical Commission states that the number of people likely to encounter the demolition delay by-law is strikingly small, why bother to have it at all?”

Our response is (and here I am speaking as an authorized member of the Commission): It is indeed true that the likelihood of being affected by this by-law is amazing small. To qualify you have to: A: own one of the 600 odd structures built before 1925 which are included in the MACRIS survey (out of the 2834 private residences in Southborough); and B: intend to raze (not renovate, repair, alter or expand) but raze a structure which is unencumbered by mortgage or lien. (This a very important point; you can’t demolish a structure that someone holds a mortgage on.)

The number of buildings that qualify under these provisions is indeed tiny.

BUT, and this is a large but, when these historic demolitions do occur, they have a tendency to have dramatic and often negative effects on the quality of life in Southborough. The proposed demolition of 84 Main Street, the Garfield House, is only the most recent example. Some of your readers may remember the Mary Finn House (of Finn School fame) that a developer tore down over wide public opposition in the 90’s to build a Wendy’s, which caused a horrified town to quickly change its bylaws to prohibit more fast food restaurants. That demolition caused a cascade effect, and the lovely Victorian farmhouse that sat next to it on Flagg Road was also demolished (who wants to live next to a Wendy’s?), only to have the lot sit vacant now for almost a decade. The colonial tavern that sat at the intersection of Fayville Road and RT. 9 is another example. As is the house which used to stand on Cordaville Road across from Town Center, which was demolished over the objections of the occupant who grew up in the house, and who wanted to move the structure to another lot in town. The developer refused to grant the extension needed — “it wasn’t expedient” was the excuse offered at the time — and the house came down. When it did, it was realized from the splintered debris that the structure dated not from the late 1800s, but rather 1700, and Southborough lost yet another first-period colonial home. (There are now only two remaining.) Even the developer lost out on that one, because had he known what he had, he could have salvaged the intact 10″ x 14″ x 24′ beams of the now extinct American chestnut and made a small fortune. 

In each one of these past demolitions, the structures could have been moved, reused, disassembled ( yes, disassembled: first-period mortise and tenon construction can be reverse-engineered just like a set of Lincoln Logs) or, at the very least, documented. They, and many others, have disappeared from our shared landscape, and except for the tavern, sit crushed in some landfill, their histories entirely lost. What’s worse, in two of the cases, the lots that the owners were so eager to develop stand empty, unsold, and unwanted. What a waste of our shared cultural heritage! What a loss to Southborough!

We as a community need to realize that the historical fabric of this town is limited and finite. I’ve lived here for 23 years, and just in that time alone, I have seen building after building go down without a trace simply because there was no mechanism to govern this process, no mechanism to protect the public interest. We talk a lot about the rights of the individual property owner in Southborough, and that’s fine. But when do the rest of us get an equal seat at the table? When are we — and our elected representatives — going to shift the discussion to how individual decisions of various owners can negatively impact everyone’s bottom line? If you demolish a part of our history knowing that there are viable preservation alternatives simply because it’s “expedient” for you, you rob us all. Truly. Rob. You reach into the pocket of every rate-payer in town, and you steal a bit of the most valuable coinage we possess: our heritage. And that has a quantifiable negative financial impact on us all, as this same heritage is what makes Southborough a desirable place to live; this same heritage is what supports property values, which in turn supports schools and recreation; this same heritage is what puts a smile on your face when you drive past a pasture dotted with cows, or a beautiful columned old house, or a winding, stone-walled road and realize: “Wow, I’m home.”

That’s what this by-law is really about, and we on the Historical Commission will do our very best make this known to our fellow citizens before the vote at Town Meeting.

Michael Weishan

1 Resident March 25, 2015 at 6:32 PM

Wooo, captain, slow down. Before your letter I thought the bylaw might be useful. Now I am concerned about unchecked fanatics that may be coming to get me.

I’ve read the bylaw carefully, watched the meetings, and have decided I;m voting no for three reasons. (1)- 9 months is just too. too long. All this can happen within one month. (2) – The neglect section allows the town to go to court to force residents to repair their own property. Its not the town’s property. The bylaw also allows legal process even when the owner is not doing anything on purpose to allow the house to fall into bad condition. Most of the time houses aren’t repaired because of the cost. If an owner can;t afford the repairs to the committee’s liking, what happens then? 3. If the number of houses that this will impact is “tiny” a bylaw is not needed. Instead, a written policy that says when a permit is applied for an elected body meets with the person who took out the permit to work out any historical issues. Issues solved without any property rights impacted. A simple policy is better for situations that are “tiny”. This is a prime example of government overreaching, ignoring boundary and ownership lines. Vote no.

2 beth March 26, 2015 at 7:50 AM

I have to point out that the demo Lycian by neglect you are referring to is for unoccupied buildings. And it is intended to stop people from purposefully Using nature to start the demolition of the house and destroy its value. The word intentional is left out, because they don’t want to be required to prove intent. It is not meant to go after people who are having trouble maintaining their homes.

People can debate the merits of the bylaw and concerns about the language. I just don’t want voters to make their decisions based on misinformation about what the article is.

3 Michael Weishan March 26, 2015 at 10:40 AM

In response to the “Resident” 1) Nine months is the shorter end of the spectrum for these bylaws in MA. Northborough,, which has had this same sort of bylaw for decades, requires 12 months, for example. Also, I should point out that 9 months is the maximum; individual issues could be resolved in days, weeks or months, depending on the complexity of the property involved. You can, for example, move a house in one month. Not even close. Or even arrange an architectural survey. 2) As Beth points out above, and as the bylaw clearly states, the demolition by neglect clauses applies ONLY to unoccupied historical buildings. 3) the bylaw is in fact that “simple policy” to which you refer. Voluntary measures in the past have proven futile; I’ve already noted a number of the most prominent examples above.

4 Deborah Costine March 26, 2015 at 11:21 AM

Michael, This clarification makes quite a difference! Its always good to learn more of the details. The “fear” component can be an unnecessary distraction.

5 Rebecca Deans-Rowe March 26, 2015 at 12:16 PM

Dear Resident,

The Demolition by Neglect process is perhaps the most poorly understood portion of the bylaw. Under no circumstances will this provision apply to homeowners who are unable to make repairs on their home. It is in place to address willful neglect, and only if the property is historically significant, unoccupied and not mortgaged. Language has been added to address cases of economic hardship, and protecting the privacy and dignity of all citizens is of utmost importance.

Please consider attending an upcoming informational meeting or a general meeting of the Historical Commission to have all of your concerns and questions addressed. As a member of the Historical Commission (although I am speaking as a private citizen), I can assure you that this bylaw is not intended to be draconian or invasive. It merely establishes a common legal process to preserve the history of our town — a process that has proven successful in numerous surrounding communities. I think we can all agree that it is important to preserve our most historically significant structures and protect the character of our town, while simultaneously respecting the rights of homeowners. The most effective and established manner of achieving this goal is a Demolition Delay Bylaw.

Rebecca Deans-Rowe

6 Kelly Roney March 26, 2015 at 12:33 PM

Nine months doesn’t seem like a long time to delay destruction of a building that has stood for a century or more.

It’s absolutely true that one of the unique and beautiful things about Massachusetts is our conservation of our fine and honorable heritage – and the less savory history, too.

7 Christina Lamb March 26, 2015 at 12:56 PM

Thank you, Michael, for the concern and time you have spent in the interests of having sensible bylaws for an historic town. The town of Southborough derives its character from its history and it would be a tremendous loss to all who live here if this beautiful house were to disappear. As far as private property rights go, it is usual and customary for owners of historic houses to know they have limited permissions to change the structure. That Southborough has not enacted such provisions into law yet may simply have been in the belief that all residents shared the same values and respect for things old and traditional. Times have changed, and laws are now needed to protect what so obviously needs protection. The only surprising thing in this matter is that Southborough does not already have this bylaw in place, when it is pretty common in surrounding areas. This bylaw is not revolutionary–it is normal. Voting YES would simply bring Southborough up to par with other towns. It is embarrassing that we have lagged so far behind. The fact that the only negative comment in this string so far was posted anonymously should give readers pause about its validity. Vote YES for the bylaw, as I will.

8 Christa Brady March 26, 2015 at 5:43 PM

I am very grateful to Michael and the Historical Commission for developing such a reasonable and critical bylaw for our community. I would like readers to consider again that the only demolition permit requested and granted this year was for The Joseph Burnett House at 84 Main Street. This property and the demoltion permit currently attached to it are not owned by a Southborough resident. The Demolition Delay By-Law that we will all vote on at Town Meeting is designed specifically to PROTECT our community and its greatest historical assets. Nine months is definitely not too long when helping a property owner to consider options that would fit their agenda and maintain the integrity of our town. Let’s be PROACTIVE going forward and vote this preventative plan into place.

On a side note, when I see name-calling within a response it’s difficult for me to accept the rest of that person’s comment as valid. So, not only does it violate the rules for contributing to this blog, it casts doubt upon your position. If you seek respect, demonstrate it.

9 SB Resident March 27, 2015 at 10:26 AM

My problem with this bylaw is that I think there is a big difference between historical and old. While maintaining history may provide the town a net value, so does making the old new. There are a bunch of old run down houses around that I’d love to see razed, which would significantly improve the look of town. I’d hate to see barriers to that put up. If the historical commission ultimately gets to decide if a property is historically significant at the time of permit request, why can’t they just come up with the list now so there is no question? The openendedness is just a tool for abuse down the road. Also, the good faith effort concept doesn’t work for me. It basically screams we have to use the courts, another tool for delay, to cause pain for the homeowner and will just be a cost to the town.

Second, one of the everything I learned in kindergarten concepts is: everybody else is doing it, is never a good reason for anything. Lets take what everybody else is doing and do it right instead.

Third, trying to spin this as something small doesn’t seem valid either. Anything that affects more than 20% of the households in the town is not small. A list of 20-30 historically significant houses could be considered small.

10 Michael Weishan March 27, 2015 at 12:11 PM

In the response to the Southborough resident:
Your question about old vs historically significant vs. architecturally significant is very valid. We DO in fact have a very detailed list of all the properties concerned, and it is available here: http://southboroughhistoricalcommission.weebly.com/

Let me explain about how this list was drawn up. In the late 90s, the Town hired, through a warrant article at Town Meeting, a professional historian to survey all the structures in Southborough. Structures included in her list were considered to be either 1) historically significant and or 2) architecturally significant. Here’s a make believe example that illustrates the difference. Say there is an old barn that doesn’t look like much from the outside. Research discovers that this is the barn colonial soldiers used to store their gun powder. It’s now historically significant. Once inside, it’s noticed that the barn is built of chestnut mortise and tenon, making it architecturally significant because chestnut is now extinct and very few of these kind of structures survive. It’s an old barn on the outside, but very valuable for other reasons. the MACRIS list was compiled on that basis and again, it was compiled at Town request and considerable expense by an outside professional.

I’ve noticed too that there have been some comments alleging potential errors in dating. Let me address that too. Dating information is taken from a number of sources: the assessors office, the registry of deeds, personal information and research etc. It is of course possible that there are some discrepancies. For example, there are cases where a permit was issued for construction of a subdivision, and for various reasons, the houses were built over a number of years. The official recorded date remains the date of the permit. Other even older homes often have a c. (circa) date as it can only be assigned to a range because records are vague or contradictory. This is a common feature of any listing of historical structures, and it is certainly not, as one person alleged, a deliberate attempt “to massage” the dates! We urge any homeowner that finds a discrepancy on the list to contact us and we’ll happily correct that information.

Finally, I remember the kindergarten adage you reference, though we learned it along the lines of “if everyone is jumping in the lake…” and while that’s wise guidance for adolescent behavior, I don’t think it applies to civic policy. If most of the surrounding towns have passed similar legislation that has been successful in preserving their historic nature, it would be unwise to be the exception, as it make us the target of outside developers looking to exploit this weakness in our bylaws.

11 SB Resident March 27, 2015 at 1:04 PM

I have perused the website and my problem stands, basically anything old is deemed significant by default. I was able to quickly find multiple examples of what I would call “just a normal old house” from the early 1900’s that were deemed architecturally significant. I guess significant has a more substantial meaning to me.

Basically, the point is that in the yes/no path of the bylaw, I doubt there will ever be an instance where the no path is used because to historians everything is significant.

12 John March 28, 2015 at 10:24 AM

I too noticed discrepancies in the database. I am aware of at least three houses including one that I grew up in that have c1950 dates (I assume that was the criteria to make them “historically significant” when he/she was hired) when in fact they were built in the late 1950s. This information was confirmed when I checked the Town of Southborough Assessor’s cards found on line!! I found the information very easily in about 5 minutes or less. Trust me, there is nothing historically significant about the three properties that I am familiar with!

Perhaps better research needs to be conducted on the existing list as there may be many homeowners who own property on the list that are affected that do not read this blog!

13 beth March 28, 2015 at 12:54 PM

As mentioned in a previous comment, see means circa. That means approximately. So it appears it is referring to the decade.

14 John March 28, 2015 at 1:44 PM

Beth – I understand – but from my perspective, adding nearly 10 years to a then 40 year old home (in the late 1990s when the survey was conducted) equates to adding nearly 25% to it’s relatively young age! Adding 10 years back then bumped it into the over 50 year old bracket for inclusion to the list when, if proper research was conducted, it would not have been included. It took me only a few minutes to search the town’s property card for the addresses that I questioned to find the true age. To me it indicates the “historian’s” work was sloppy at best, rounded to add years to make it appear as if there are more old, err, “historic” properties in town.

15 Al Hamilton March 27, 2015 at 12:32 PM

Leaving aside the details for a moment there are 3 big issues which deserve consideration. One is philosophical and two are practical.

1. On a philosophic level we have to as do we think allowing our government to insert itself this deeply into what is fundamentally a private decision is appropriate. For me, the answer is no. Others may be more willing to use the powers of the state to limit property rights, I am not.

2. The practical question is: Will this by law produce and useful results. I fear that if recent history is any guideline the answer is no. Various parties have been trying to “save” the Burnett House for well over 10 months and have not succeeded. There have been several other attempts to save old, decaying buildings in the last 10 years that have failed.

The economics are very difficult. “Historic” buildings are only demolished if they face very costly renovations AND the underlying value of the property is large. This means that in order to outbid the prospective demolisher (which is the bottom line) large sums of money must be raised in a relatively short period of time. No small task and as a local government a nearly impossible task. So I don’t think this legislation will produce anything but delay and frustration.

3. This leads to the second practical issue. Nothing in our town government happens quickly. That is part of the charm and frustration of our form of government. 9 or 10 months is a mere heartbeat the the life a substantial public endeavor in Southborough. Look at how long it took to redefine the role of the Town Admin or to act on School Buildings or the Police Station or Main St. Those who want this legislation to have a chance of really succeeding should be asking for 2-3 years. Enough time to evaluate the situation and then put a funding request before the ATM. Of course denying a property owner the highest and best use of their property for 2-3 years is very problematic.

If I thought there was some reasonable way to actually preserve some historic buildings while respecting the rights of property owners I would vote for it. This legislation will achieve neither.

16 Frank Crowell March 29, 2015 at 2:13 PM

One need only look how the Gulbankians were treated to understand how a property owner will be treated under this by-law if passed.

Voting no in defense of property rights is no vice.

All the time devoted to this by-law would have been better spent raising money to save the Burnett house. Saving historical buildings is a good cause but it should not be on the property owners back unless he or she wishes it to be.

17 alexis fallon April 7, 2015 at 11:26 PM

I support the delay law regarding the few historic structures that it applies to. While I respect an individual’s right over one’s property, this right has limits. For example, if someone turned their home into a factory that worked 24 hours a day a belched smoke from its smoke stack everyone in the town would complain. So collectively we agree that there is a soundness to our zoning laws. In the present matter, regardless of which side you are on, the garfield/burnett house has had a significant role in our town’s history. To rip down this structure in favor of what? A nine month delay is more than reasonable. I would go so far to say it should be longer. As the old saying goes haste makes waste. Imagine if the city planners in Rome had no preservation law? Really?!? Think of it the historic sights of Rome ripped down in favor of a subdivision, I think not. There comes a time when we as a town must preserve our collective heritage.I will support this proposal. I wish that we could do even more.

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