This summer, the Historical Commission and the board that appoints them found themselves at odds again. This time, issues revolve around Historical’s interpretation of the Demolition Delay Bylaw and treatment of homeowners.
In a June 15th meeting, members of the Board of Selectmen expressed distress over Historical’s handling of a demolition permit application. In turn, at Historical’s June 17th meeting, the Commission disputed points raised by selectmen and expressed upset over the treatment of its members.
There appear to be two main areas of dispute. One is differing accounts of the actions of the Commission. The other is what the bylaw can and can’t require of property owners. An area on which they both agreed was the need for guidance from Town Counsel. It looks like that is coming this Thursday evening.
An agenda posted yesterday for a BOS Meeting at 7:30 tomorrow (July 22) includes an appointment with Town Counsel to discuss the bylaw. The agenda doesn’t list a discussion with the Historical Commission, and it looks like a quorum of their members won’t be attending. (They haven’t posted an agenda to meet that evening.)
In their June 15th discussion, selectmen characterized Historical’s actions as a violation of the stated intent of and language of the bylaw passed by Town Meeting. As recapped in selectmen’s minutes, Chair Lisa Braccio said that Historical had required a resident to try to sell her property. She said the bylaw was intended only to delay demolitions, not stop them.
According to their posted “draft minutes“, Historical’s Chair Michael Weishan criticized selectmen holding the discussion when the Commission’s members couldn’t attend. Members also “observed that some twenty distortions or misstatements had been made during the BoS meeting.”
The property that triggered the dispute was 15 Main Street. Braccio supported the Building Commissioner’s decision to issued the permit after a nine month delay. According to the BOS Chair, the Historical Commission didn’t have the authority to “close” the demolition permit as they voted to do.
While Historical has been seeking to preserve a historic home, Selectman Marty Healey opined to the board that their actions were counter productive. He said the owner had been working to find a path to maintain the historical look of the home. Because Historical “took a heavy handed and I think very illegal approach”, the 9 months lapsed and now she can do whatever she wants with the home.
According to selectmen, Historical has been instructing property owners that they can’t get a demolition permit unless they first put their property on the market. Selectmen argue that’s something that Town Meeting didn’t vote to authorize.
Healey characterized Historical as a rogue commission that opened the Town up to liability. He described the Commission as having created its own bylaw not voted on by Town Meeting. He blamed “one person. . . without any brakes” from other members. (It was clear that one person was Weishan.)
Among the disputed points is the access to legal advice that Historical was provided and received. Healey stated that the Commission relied on a “regulation” that they falsely claimed to have been approved by Town Counsel. He emphasized that then-Town Counsel Aldo Cipriano hadn’t approved it, and the Commission never voted on officially adopting it. Yet, they have been distributing it to property owners.
The document providing guidance states:***
In accordance with the demolition delay Bylaw, property owners requesting a demolition permit on a listed property will be sent an action plan. This plan must be completed in full to ensure you have made “continuing, bona fide, and reasonable efforts” to conform to provisions of the bylaw. It is the obligation of the owner to submit a proactive plan to work with the Historical Commission either to preserve the property, in whole or in part, or find another buyer willing to do so. . .
Should the applicant be unwilling to restore the property, the applicant must prove that he or she has made bona fide efforts to find an alternative buyer before a demolition order will be granted. . . The active sales effort for the property may under no circumstances be less that 120 days.
NOTE: If the Commission finds that the applicant or his/her agents are not making good faith effort to find an alternative to demolition of the property, the process will halt and will not restart until the Historical Commission decides reasonable good faith efforts are being made, as determined by the facts and circumstances of each individual case.
Selectmen claim that the above language isn’t consistent with the bylaw passed by Town Meeting.
The bylaw’s wording isn’t that specific, but does specify that owners of buildings that meets the bylaw criteria and are determined historically significant by the commission must “actively [cooperate] in seeking alternatives with the Commission and any interested parties.”
Before the 2015 vote, scenarios were described to voters that included the possibility that someone might be willing to purchase and move a building or that the Commission could help salvage some historically significant materials from the building before its demolition. The more loose scenario is consistent with an FAQ sheet Historical shared at that time which states:
Doesn’t this take away some of my rights to do what I want with my property?
No it doesn’t, and arguments to the contrary are deliberately misleading. The by-law merely forces a 9-month delay while the Historical Commission works with you to explore means other than demolition to achieve your goals. This might be a minor inconvenience to someone who buys a property merely for development, but it protects the rest of us from outsiders merely looking to turn a quick profit at the expense of our shared cultural history
However, that same document also states:*
During the 9-month delay period the Applicant must make a good faith effort to locate a buyer to preserve or rehabilitate the structure. If no alternative solution can be found, the Historical Commission will notify the Applicant and the Building Inspector, who then may issue a demolition permit.
In regards to the Commission’s access to Town Counsel, selectmen’s minutes include:
Chairman Braccio gave a summary of Town Counsel’s multiple offers to work with the Commission to refine their documents. She stated he was never taken up on his offers. Mr. Healey clarified that Attorney Cipriano is at not fault in this situation as he made himself available and made multiple offers to assist the Commission.
Meanwhile, Historical’s “draft minutes” state:
Mr. Weishan noted that six requests for counsel with Mr. Aldo Cipriano had been denied by Mr. Purple. Such legal counsel would have been helpful in heading off any issues with the 15 Main St. project, including an attempt by the owner to attach it to the new Downtown Zoning District.
Braccio stated on June 15th that she would be inviting the Commission to the July 13th meeting. BOS met that night, but Historical wasn’t on the agenda.
It’s not the first time selectmen discussed the need to address Historical members’ behavior. Earlier this spring, they were upset by the Commission’s handling of complaints about a flag at the Old Burial Ground. At that time Healey also referenced Weishan’s communications with the Building Department as upsetting. Selectmen agreed on a need to bring in Historical to talk.** While individual members have called in to comment on selectmen’s agenda items, the Commission and Board have yet to meet since issues arose this spring.
In 2018, the Board was upset enough at Weishan over his communication with the public on another Demolition Delay case to vote not reappoint him to the Commission at the end of his term. In 2019, they considered doing the same for other members, who had voted with Weishan to file an ethics complaint against then-Selectman Brian Shea. In the end, they reappointed them.
Last September, selectmen voted to reappoint Weishan to the Commission based on members’ stated need for a volunteer with knowledge and experience. At that time, Weishan blamed lack of training by Town Counsel and poor communications between Historical and selectmen for the past issues. He indicated those wouldn’t be problems in the future.
As for Historical’s public response to selectmen’s public discussion, draft minutes from their June 17th meeting include Weishan’s statement that Healey owes members an apology for aspersions cast. The minutes also laid out member’s planned next steps:
The Historical Commission members agreed that ‘common facts’ need to be established. Legal counsel would be helpful in reviewing By-Laws and Rules and Regulations as well as the processes followed. It was concluded that input from the Attorney General, the State Historical Commission, and possibly private pro bono counsel should be sought. Mr. Weishan requested that Mr. James Blaschke draft a letter for his review, the letter to outline the Commission’s concerns and the issues raised in the BoS meeting. The letter’s purpose was to define the Commission’s position on the 15 Main St. matter and the overall related processes.
Mr. Blaschke noted that the Historical Commission must try to do what it could to save 15 Main St. Mr. Weishan noted that perhaps raising public awareness of the pending demolition of the historic Newton homestead might be beneficial, given that it is one of the few private properties on that side of central Main Street still in private hands.
A motion was made and seconded to take the following steps: reach out to Mr. Aldo Cipriano for legal counsel, send a letter to the Board of Selectman noting the Historical Commission’s disagreement with some of their findings, seek to have the BoS and the Commission jointly meet with counsel to nail down the facts first, and then to take corrective actions to serve everyone’s best interests – including the property owner, Ms. Connell
*Although my recollection was that voters were told that the bylaw requirement to find an alternative buyer would only be triggered after a home was sold (not apply to existing homeowners), I couldn’t find anything in writing to support that memory. I also can’t find any videos of presentations made that spring.
**It looks like I never found time in the spring to write about selectmen’s discussion about Weishan’s communications with veterans about the flag. At their March 16th meeting, Healey condemned Weishan’s behavior in communications with veterans, making a public controversy of the issue, and purportedly stating misinformation. The board supported Healey’s statement that Historical should be brought into a future meeting to discuss their behavior/role.
Updated (7/22/21 8:01 am): A reader pointed out that it would be helpful to include the link to the actual Demolition Delay Bylaw. I inserted a link above and you can find it here.
***Updated (8/11/21 1:41 pm): The materials I had linked to that were posted to the Town’s website under the Historical Commission page as guidance on the Demolition Delay process have been taken down. When I put in a request for a copy, the Town pointed me to its inclusion in the agenda packet for the July 22nd meeting.