City May Change Rules for Demolishing Historic Buildings

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A City Council Committee has started looking at doubling the maximum delay for demolition of a historic home or building, but also to remove many properties from consideration for the demo delays.

The Historical Commission can put a delay on demolishing homes and buildings that have historic significance in an effort to find a way to preserve them, including finding a person or group to buy it and save it. The Commission can prevent a structure from being demolished. The current maximum delay is 12 months.

Currently, projects that must be heard by the Historical Commission include any building 50 years old or older.

A building is considered historically significant if it is associated with one or more historic persons or events, or with the broad architectural, cultural, political, economic or social history of the City or the State. And/or if it historically or architecturally important, including: time period, style, method of construction, architect or builder.

The Committee on Economic Development & Planning discussed amending Watertown’s demolition delay ordinance including lengthening the maximum demolition delay from 12 to 24 months and streamlining the Historical Commission process.

Historical Commission Chair Elisabeth Loukas told the committee that more than 80 percent of structures over 50 years old in the City are not historically significant, and the Historical Commission proposed that a demolition delay should not be imposed on these structures.

For the historically significant structures, the Historical Commission requests increasing the demolition delay. Councilor Lisa Feltner read from the committee report:

“For the remaining 20 percent of the structures, this would give more leverage to the Commission to work with developers to preserve significant structures. Right now, many developers state up front that they don’t care about the 12 months and intend to just wait it out. Statistics show that over the past 20 years, the Commission has only imposed delays in 15 percent of the cases, and only 21 cases had the maximum 12 months imposed,” the report reads.

The Historical Commission also noted what it called a “small but growing problem” where a building permit is granted for renovations, and then a structure is effectively demolished. New language has been proposed to define substantial demolition, including regulations for the Building Department to screen the projects.

During the committee meeting, Councilors said they liked the ideal of removing non-significant structures from the process.

Some had questions, however, about the changes to the demolition delay period. Council Vice President Vincent Piccirilli noted that the Massachusetts Historical Commission’s model demolition delay bylaw has a delay of 18 months, and he asked why Watertown is considering 24 months.

Councilor Tony Palomba said he couldn’t support a 24 month delay, and preferred 18 months. He also asked for a list of communities with demolition delays and the length of the delays.

Feltner said she supported the proposed changes.

Another proposed change includes changing the requirements for legal notices for a public hearing in front of the Historical Commission, which currently requires publication in a print newspaper.

“Because there is no state law requiring newspaper publication, the ordinance would allow online electronic publication of public notices,” the report said.

See the Committee on Economic Development & Planning report and the current and proposed demolition delay ordinance by clicking here.

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