Heritage Commission wants ordinance with bigger teeth

LACONIA — In hopes of protecting and preserving historic buildings in the city, the Heritage Commission will propose amending the demolition ordinance to apply to a wider range of properties as well as to allow more time to mount preservation efforts.

When the commission met this week Planning Director Shanna Saunders presented a draft prepared in conjunction with Pam Clark, who has chaired the panel since its inception in 2004. Saunders said that she drew on similar ordinances enacted by other cities and towns, both in and beyond New Hampshire.

The commission will make its recommendation to the Planning Board, which in turn must seek the approval of the City Council to any change in the ordinance.

Although the Heritage Commission was established in 2003, it was not assigned a role in the demolition process until 2008. The current ordinance provides for the commission to review the application to demolish any building of more than 700-square-feet or structure of any size that is not a building, which is more than 75 years old and visible from a public street. If the commission finds the structure is not significant, the demolition may proceed.

However, if the Heritage Commission deems the it structure significant, it shall schedule a public hearing, to which the owner of the property is invited, to explore alternatives to demolition. If no alternative is found, the commission and owner shall meet within 10 days in a last attempt to reach agreement. Without an agreement to preserve the building, the owner may proceed to raze it while the Heritage Commission, with the consent of the owner, can photograph and document the building as well as encourage the owner to salvage any of its important architectural features.

The commission is considering four major changes to the existing ordinance. The first would add a preamble, or statement of purpose, affirming that "historic preservation" is an objective of the Master Plan and that demolition of significant structures "should be avoided when possible and practical" and be "an action of last resort."

"Significant" buildings and structures would be defined by five criteria. They would include buildings meeting national or state standards for historical, cultural or architectural landmarks as well as those of "such unusual or uncommon design, texture or materials" that they could only be reproduced with great difficulty or at great expense. Buildings, which if razed, would adversely affect the public interest and those that contribute to preservation of a place of historic interest would also qualify as "significant."

In addition, instead of applying to buildings and structures more than 75 years old, the commission proposes to reduce the minimum age to 50 years and strike the requirement that they be visible from a public right-of-way.

Finally. the amendment would authorize the Heritage Commission, after failing reach agreement with the property owner, to petition the City Council to defer the issuance of a demolition permit for up to 180 days. Drawing on its recent experience with the Hathaway House, the commission believes the additional time would provide an opportunity to find and fund a way to preserve the building or structure.