Belmont planners not ready to endorse historic demolition ordinance

BELMONT — Planning Board members on January 13 voted against supporting a petitioned warrant article that, if passed, at the upcoming annual town vote would create a Historic Demolition Review Ordinance.

The ordinance would call for a pre-demolition review of all properties built in 1965 or later by the review committee.

"The HDRC is responsible for only one thing," wrote lead petitioner Linda Frawley, "determining whether a building is historically significant, and if so, holding a hearing to review potential alternatives to demolition."

The Historic Review Committee, if created, "would be advisory only and would encourage people to look for an alternative to simple razing historical property.

Planning Board members who held a public hearing on the petitioned warrant article earlier this month, were not necessarily against some kind of historic review committee but wanted more time to evaluate the idea.

Frawley said she "rushed" around the day before the petition deadline to gather signatures for a petition that would cover the entire community and get it filed in time for consideration this year.

She said that there are a number of properties in Belmont that are not in the Village District — she gave the Providence Road Meeting House as an example — that bear preserving.

Selectman Jon Pike, who serves as the selectman's representative to the Planning Board, said he was concerned with the rights people have to their own property.

As an example, he gave an example of someone who purchased an old home that has a ell connection the house to the barn. He said his interpretation of the ordinance as proposed was that if someone wanted to remove the ell, the ensuing review processes could take as much as 120 days.

Frawley said "a small piece of property is not part of the ordinance" while Town Planner Candace Daigle said there would be a minimum size of a demolition or renovation that would be covered under the proposed ordinance.

Pike said he sees the benefit of some kine of historic demolition ordinance but wants better assurance that private property owners' interests are protected. He said he felt the time from when an application was made until the time a demolition order was granted was too lengthy.

"We are not unreasonable," said Frawley. "We don't like people to dislike history in Belmont."

She also said the proposed demolition ordinance is a "good faith effort" to follow though with the most recent Belmont Master Plan in which a number of citizens participated.

She said it is the first time they have tried it in nine years in Belmont and cited other communities who have similar ordinances such as Laconia, Amherst and Winchester.

She also said it was reviewed by the N.H. Division of Historical Resources. She their only recommendation was to lengthen the time of the review from 45 days to 90 but she thought it wouldn't be fair.

Planning Board Chair Peter Harris said he supports the Heritage Commission but didn't see how he could support creating a Historic Commission Review District at this time.

"We're so much in the dark," he said.

He also said the Planning Board hasn't had time to fully review the proposal. "With a little work, I can see this being a good thing," he said.

Three of the members, including Pike and Harris, said they also couldn't support it at this time. One member abstained.

Because the proposed ordinance has been placed as an article on the March warrant by petition, it cannot be changed or altered by the Planning Board or on the floor of the SB-2 deliberative session, scheduled for February 1 at 10 a.m. — a Saturday.

In addition, until the ballot portion of the town meeting takes place, all demolition permits of property older than 50 years are being held in abeyance until voters can weigh in on the article on voting day on March 11.