Henry and Rachel Vigeant and their son, 8-year-old Lowell, welcome customers to the Corner Slice, a recently relaunched business on Route 140 in Gilmanton. The Corner Slice is in the old Corner Store, and in the historic district. Other family members involved in the business are daughter, Julia, and son, Aidan. (David Carkhuff/Laconia Daily Sun)
Launching a business in a historic property brings pitfalls as well as promise
By DAVID CARKHUFF/THE LACONIA DAILY SUN
GILMANTON — The mystique of history can become a beacon, helping a business market itself.
The Gilmanton Winery, for example, lauds the fact that the winery occupies the former home of "Peyton Place" author, Grace Metalious, whose explosive novel about the secrets found in small-town New England, when published in 1956, became a national sensation.
But business owners also confront special challenges when adopting historic properties.
Sometimes the problems are incidental to the history — the Gilmanton Winery is enmeshed in litigation with the town over site-plan requirements for its restaurant, a conflict that arguably could have happened in a modern building. Gilmanton Winery faced confusion over site-plan rules imposed by the Planning Board and also has been asked to seek a variance from the Zoning Board because restaurants are not allowed in new construction in the rural zone, officials explained.
Other problems, however, are magnified by a business occupying a decades-old structure.
Such is the case for the Corner Slice, formerly the Corner Store.
John Dickey, president of the Gilmanton Historical Society, noted that the store, on the corner of Route 140 and Route 107, was constructed around 1940 by Harmon and Roxey Stockwell.
The Stockwells owned and ran another store that was on Route 140, at the location of the old fire station, Dickey said. The Stockwells' first store went out of business. They then built the building that housed the Corner Store.
The store and gas station has been run by at least five owners since 1974, he estimated.
In the 1940s and during World War II, the store was a focal point for sharing of town information, Dickey said.
"That was a period in time when there weren't many telephones in town," Dickey explained.
If a member of the armed services was traveling home, he could call Roxey Stockwell at the store and share the news. Roxey Stockwell also maintained a bulletin board and posted photos of people serving in the armed services, Dickey said.
The front porch of the building is the same as original construction, Dickey said. An addition in the late 1970s created a residence on the back, Dickey said.
That's the history. Now for the gritty reality. The store was vacant for about a year and a half prior to the new management taking over, and the ensuing retrofit and permitting became a source of torment for the new operators.
Henry and Rachel Vigeant took over the business and opened last year, following months of permitting and renovation.
"When I took this over, this place should have been condemned," Henry Vigeant said. "For years, multiple decades, this place was not renovated, not up to codes."
The family had to install new electrical wiring, remove asbestos, contend with fire codes for the aging structure and make a number of other upgrades.
"I did everything to the letter of the law to get the place up to where it had to be," Henry Vigeant said.
Rachel Vigeant said Gilmanton's Historic District Commission became involved. The colors of the building had to be approved by the town, she noted, so the couple obliged. They did many of the renovations themselves.
"We have been very transparent from the very beginning with everything we've done here," Rachel Vigeant said.
Rachel Vigeant said only a handful of Historic District Commission members threw up barriers, but added "There are certain members that seem to have it out for us," she said.
The Vigeants said they were already tested by a rigorous permitting process. The Corner Slice sought a change-of-use from convenience store to restaurant when the Vigeants acquired the property. Confusion over septic system records prolonged the process with state regulators.
What has tripped up the business most recently is a dispute over the use of a freestanding "open" flag that the business used to attract customers from the nearby roads.
Henry Vigeant said he received a flier about the rules regarding signs, but he said, "In the rules it says, freestanding advertising can be no more than 20 feet. I had it at 15 feet. So actually I was within the letter of the law that they gave me."
According to Gilmanton's historic district ordinance, "All signs visible from the exterior must have HDC approval." The ordinance does not mention flags or banners. The historic district includes property in the Corners, from where Route 140 and Route 107 meet, reaching 400 feet on either side of both roads. "It's like a big cross," explained Annette Andreozzi, land use administrator for Gilmanton.
"When it comes to flags, the historic district doesn't have any specific rules on flags per se, but they do have rules on signs and advertising devices," Andreozzi said.
Henry Vigeant wondered if the rules have been applied evenly. He said that a nearby menu board sign is allowed with special conditions. A home up the road has trash out front, in apparent violation of the ordinance, he said. The lack of an "open" flag has hurt business, he said.
"Basically, they want us to have no signage and no lights to stay in business," Henry Vigeant said. "We've been tired of having customers saying, 'I drove by yesterday, and I didn't realize you were open.'"
Regulators already had become a thorn in the side of the Corner Slice, the couple said.
"The zoning and the septic, we almost didn't get to open because of it. That created a lot of hardship on our family financially," Henry Vigeant said.
The flag has become a symbol of overreach and selective enforcement to the couple.
"No town resident ever complained about this, nobody ever complained about this. It was at the town office, they brought this to the board," Henry Vigeant said.
The couple wasn't notified that they were on the agenda for the upcoming meeting of the HDC, which is 7 p.m. on Tuesday, March 7, he said.
"It's very difficult. It's hard enough when you don't have the population, but when the minimal population you do have doesn't know you're open, it's extremely difficult," Henry Vigeant said, explaining why the flag is a key aspect of the store's survival.
He said the business is trying to stay in the black.
A window had to be installed in place of metal bars and plastic, an example of how dilapidated the building was when the Vigeants took over.
State regulations also came into play, although the flag flap appears to be the straw that's breaking the camel's back.
"I don't think I have to ask permission to put an 'open' flag up," Henry Vigeant said. "I didn't think I was breaking any rules."
Henry Vigeant said he had to fix a part to operate the gas pumps, per the state Department of Environmental Services, so the gas pumps are out of service for the time being.
The couple said historic district ordinance rules should not be an avenue to hinder business.
Elizabeth Muzzey, the director of the New Hampshire Division of Historical Resources and New Hampshire's state historic preservation officer, said historic districts in general do not stifle economic development, based on experiences across the country.
Typically, these districts feature lower foreclosure rates and boast a greater incentive for businesses to relocate there, she said.
"Historic districts also see more construction projects because they're a desirable place to be," Muzzey said.
State records indicate a robust historic preservation program. The federal Preservation Tax Incentive invested an estimated $127,660,289 in capital investment over the last 10 years in the state toward rehabilitating historic buildings, the Division of Historical Resources reports.
The New Hampshire Land and Community Heritage Investment Program has helped to preserve 218 historic buildings since 2000, with more than $5.2 million pumped into the effort in the past decade, the agency notes.
"Our office is always available to assist property owners of historic properties when they have questions," Muzzey said.
This consultation is especially useful when an owner goes through the designation process for state or national registers of historic places, she said.
"Every community is different, it's the town or the city that work to put a historic district in place and also to write the local historic district ordinance," Muzzey said.
Andreozzi, the land use administrator for Gilmanton, said, "I would say that the rules for this town are fairly clear and the process is very clear."
The historic district in its various boundaries applies rules which are on top of planning and zoning, based on state law regarding historic districts and building permits, she said.
"Quite often an old building, depending on how old we're talking about, is actually more sound than some newer buildings that were built before New Hampshire was under building codes," Andreozzi said.
On Thursday, March 16, at 7 p.m., the Zoning Board of Adjustment will revisit a request from Marshall and Carol Bishop, owners of the Gilmanton Winery, to receive a variance for their restaurant.
Meanwhile, the Bishops (who have declined to comment due to the ongoing litigation) are in a standoff with the Planning Board. On Jan. 20, the Planning Board, through attorney Paul Fitzgerald of Wescott Law of Laconia, submitted a "respondent's answer and request for declaratory relief" at the Belknap County Superior Court. In this document, the Planning Board asserted that the Gilmanton Winery has been operating "a full service restaurant with onsite food preparation without appropriate approvals from the Planning Board."
The Bishops, through their legal counsel, Bianco Professional Association of Concord, asked the Planning Board to "specify the particular regulations or laws it alleges the Winery has violated and the supporting allegations that would justify forcing the Bishops to begin site plan approval anew."
Andreozzi said historic buildings don't always become the focus of controversy or confusion. She said she serves on the Franklin Historical Society, and the group leases the Daniel Webster Home that has a 1700-era section. Around 1850, a Victorian section was added. The two sections don't match and are obvious, an example of later construction being easy to detect in a historic structure.
But when a business takes over a building rooted in history, the results aren't always smooth.
Sometimes, historic properties can become money pits.
"In historic preservation, we always say, 'You better be wary.' Because no matter how much you plan, when you open the walls, you might be surprised," Andreozzi said.
The Corner Slice, where historic rules have butted up against business needs. (David Carkhuff/Laconia Daily Sun)