LACONIA — As the Belknap Mill Society seeks a new owner for the historic building its efforts will be constrained, perhaps severely, by a Term Historic Preservation Easement it granted to the state in 2004 in the course of securing a grant from the Land and Community Heritage Investment Program.
In November, Christine Santaniello, president of the society, which acquired the mill in 1974, announced that it no longer has the financial capacity to own and maintain the building. The board of trustees offered the building to the city for an undisclosed price, on the understanding that under municipal ownership it would remain open to both the public and the society. Without expressly declining or accepting the offer to purchase the building, the majority of the City Council asked the trustees to court a private purchaser.
However, the restrictions and obligations the easement places on the owner of the mill, especially a prohibition against operating it for private profit, represent strong disincentives for any private party other than a philanthropist to invest in the property.
The easement, granted for a term of 50 years, is intended "to ensure that the architectural, historical, and cultural features" of the mill are sustained and "to prevent any use or change of the property" that would "impair or interfere" with this purpose. The easement provides that if the society divests itself of all or part of the building, its "restrictions, stipulations, and covenants" shall bind the new owner.
The easement obliges the owner of the mill to maintain it in "the same or better condition and state of repair" as that on the date of the easement and prescribes that work shall be undertaken in accord with standards specified for historic buildings by the United States Secretary of the Interior. An "annual stewardship report," detailing all work on the both the exterior and interior" of the building must be submitted to the LCHIP.
The owner must make both the first floor, which in 2004 housed the gallery, museum and gift shop, and the meeting room on the third floor "accessible to the public during regular operating hours." In other words, the easement appears to designate these two floors as public space, which could be hired for meetings and events, but not leased for extended periods. Likewise, the uses of the mill as a gallery, museum, gift shop and rented offices, cannot be changed unless the Department of Cultural Resources finds that the proposed uses do not "impair the preservation values" of the building and do not conflict with the purposes of the easement.
The easement provides that no alterations to the dimensions or exterior of the building, including any changes to the materials or finishes, can be undertaken with the express approval of the Department of Cultural Resources. Moreover, the profile of the building cannot be obscured by plantings, utility lines or equipment like satellite dishes. Signage is explicitly restricted to a nine-by-eleven inch plaque stating the significance of the building and the easement, a sign bearing the address, and temporary signs advertising a special event or space for rent. The owner is bound to insure the building for its "full replacement value."
If necessary, the terms of the easement may be amended by the mutual consent of the Belknap Mill Society, Department of Cultural Resources and Land and Community Heritage Authority. However, amendments must be consistent with the purpose of the original easement and not affect its duration. Above all, the easement cannot be amended to "permit any private inurement to any person or entity," which ensures that the building cannot be operated for private profit.
Meanwhile, when the City Council hosted a public meeting on the future of the mill earlier this week, George Roberts of Gilmanton, a former president of the Belknap Mill Society, voiced concern that the trustees approached city officials without convening a meeting of the members of the society to inform them of the situation. Later Councilor Bob Hamel (Ward 5) suggested the defer further discussion of the issue until the trustees met with their membership.
Mayor Ed Engler said yesterday that the council will return to the issue at some future date, "probably at first in a non-public session, since we will be discussing the transfer of real estate and talking about specific figures." Noting that selling the property to the city is the first option of the trustees, he explained "we must tell them whether or not that is going to happen in a relatively timely manner so they can move on." For the moment, Engler said that the council would await the next step taken by the trustees, who he expects will be meeting this week.