LACONIA — The Heritage Commission will stand pat in support of its recommended changes to the city's building demolition ordinance when it returns to the Zoning Board of Adjustment (ZBA) in June to seek its endorsement in anticipation of gaining final approval from the City Council in July.
Commission members have decried the razing of several structures in recent years, most notably the so-called Hathaway House on upper Union Ave.
The commission first presented its proposal to the ZBA in April and according to the minutes of the meeting the board endorsed the recommended charges by a unanimous vote and scheduled a public hearing on the matter. At the public hearing earlier this month, no member of the public spoke, but members of the ZBA — who approved the changes a month earlier — raised a number of issues and asked the commission to address them.
Pam Clark, who has chaired the Heritage Commission since it was established nine years ago, described the ordinance this week as a "demolition delay" ordinance, adding that it is modeled on similar regulations in other municipalities both in New Hampshire and other states. The ordinance, originally enacted in 2005, is intended to protect and preserve historic buildings slated for demolition by providing time to explore alternatives and, if demolition proceeds, to document the structure and preserve any salvageable remains.
The amendment, which has been more than a year in the drafting, would apply the ordinance to a greater number of properties and provide more time to explore alternatives to demolition. The ordinance applies to "significant buildings", which are defined by four criteria. A significant building must possess features and qualities that would qualify it as "a historical, cultural or architectural landmark" by national or state standards. Buildings constructed to an uncommon design or with unusual materials that could only be reproduced with great difficulty and at great expense would also qualify. Finally, buildings of such architectural value or historic importance that their demolition would adversely impact the public interest, the preservation of which would contribute to protecting and preserving a place or area of historic interest, would qualify as significant. While the original ordinance applied only to buildings 75 years old and older, the amendment would reduce the threshold to 50 years.
The remainder of the ordinance prescribed the process triggered when an application is made to demolish a building. First, the Code Enforcement Officer shall determine if the building qualifies as "significant." If it qualifies, the applicant must be informed within five business days that the application for a demolition permit must be reviewed by the Heritage Commission at its next regularly scheduled meeting before the building can be razed..
If the commission determines the building to be demolished is not significant, the applicant shall be informed and the demolition may proceed. On the other hand, if the commission determines the building is "significant." it shall schedule a public hearing at its next monthly meeting, of which the applicant will be informed within two business days. In addition the date, time and place of the hearing will be noticed by signage on the building and in the local newspaper.
If an alternative to demolition cannot be agreed at the public hearing, the commission and applicant shall meet with 10 days. If still no agreement about the future of the building can be reached, the commission may petition the City Council to defer issuance of the demolition permit for another 180 days to allow time to pursue alternatives, including acquisition or relocation of the building. When all options have been exhausted, the owner of the property may proceed with demolition. With the consent of the owner the commission shall photograph the building and encourage salvage of its significant features.
Steve Bogert, who chairs the ZBA, asked if the commission had an inventory of "significant" buildings and, learning that it did not, expressed concern that property owners would only discover their buildings were subject to the ordinance when they applied to raze them. He suggested that "significant" buildings should be identified, inventories and designated, perhaps on the tax card, so that prospective buyers would know they were encumbered by the ordinance before acquiring them. Other members of the ZBA asked if property owners whose buildings were designated "significant" could appeal the determination or "opt out".
Clark said the commission has engaged a student intern, Greg Jacobs, who recently earned his Master's degree in historic preservation at the University of Vermont, to conduct a survey of properties in downtown, Lakeport and The Weirs during the summer. However, she said the surveys will not generate lists or inventories of "significant" properties. The commission, she stressed, has no resources to compile an inventory like Bogert envisioned.
Since there is no list or inventory, Clark said that the notion of providing a process for appealing or opting out is irrelevant. "We're not trying take away anyone's property rights," she insisted.
Planning Director Shanna Saunders emphasized that the ordinance is not contingent on the surveys. "If and when a list is completed," she said, "it would have nothing to do with the ordinance, which simply delays the demolition process." She likened the historic qualities of building to other features of property, like wetlands and setbacks, which are not inventoried or designated.
Some members of the ZBA questioned delaying demolition for 180 days. Clark noted that the commission can only request the City Council to defer demolition, adding that the property owner would be entitled to challenge the request. But, she said that extended period of time was necessary to enable the commission to make plans and raise funds to spare a valuable building from demolition.
Clark referred to the purpose of the ordinance, which is to forestall demolition of historic buildings "when possible and practical." The preamble reads "demolition of a historic building that has most of its original design and features should only by an action of last resort." The ordinance, she said, is "to ensure that a thoughtful process is followed before there is an irreversible loss to the community."
The ZBA will consider the changes proposed to the ordinance when its meets on Monday, June 15.
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