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Demolition delay bylaw could stall Belmont's commercial development, panel warns

Posted by Evan Allen  February 2, 2012 10:52 AM

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The Belmont Historic District Commission’s proposed demolition delay bylaw could stall commercial development in town, according to the Belmont Economic Development Advisory Committee.

“It could have a very chilling effect,” said EDAC member Andy Rojas. “Any single development project could be held up over a year because of demolition delay.”

The bylaw, which was initially supposed to be voted on at January’s town meeting but was withdrawn, would give the Commission the authority to delay demolition of any building that it deems historically significant.

The criteria for ‘significance’ begins with the age of the building: any building that is at least 50 years old will, according to the bylaw, automatically be subject to review by the Commission.

More than 80 percent of all buildings in Belmont are 50 years old or more, said Rojas. Even if the bylaw were changed so that the threshold for consideration was 75 years, that would still include more than 60 percent of all buildings, he said.

“It’s the whole town,” he said. “It should be a narrower focus on buildings that are actually of value.”

Instead of declaring any 50-year-old building potentially historic, said Rojas, a more practical idea would be to pick a specific date to serve as the cutoff.

“They would still accomplish what they’re trying to accomplish,” he said.

Currently, according to Jay Szklut, Belmont’s planning and economic development manager, any time the town receives a demolition permit, the Historic District Commission reviews it and either signs off or submits a letter saying that the building is historically significant and they do not support tearing it down.

But unless the home is on a national, state, or local historic register already, said Szklut, the Commission has no power to stall demolition.

“They have no authority,” said Szklut of the Commission. “If the demolition delay is passed, it gives them authority.”

The concern, said Rojas, is that if a property is automatically designated as potentially historic if it is just fifty years old, then construction projects will be needlessly bogged down as the Commission tries to sort out whether or not, for example, a ranch house built in 1960 is a historic piece of property.

“Quite frankly it could affect anything,” said Rojas. “It’s just way too much control. Way too much.”

The bylaw gives the Commission 30 days from the time a demolition permit is filed to determine whether the building is significant. If the Commission decides that the building is not historic, then the demolition permit can be issued.

But if the Commission decides that a building is significant, then the bylaw says it must hold a public hearing within 30 days of making that determination. Two weeks after the public meeting, the Commission will determine whether the building should in fact be preserved.

If it decides that the building should be preserved, then no demolition permit can be issued for at least a year while the Commission tries to find a way to save the building.

The bylaw defines a significant building as one that is listed or is eligible to be listed on a national register of historic places; or that is associated with historic people, events, or with the cultural, political, economic, architectural or social history of the town, state or country; or that is historically or architecturally important in terms of period, style, method of building construction, or association with a recognized architect or builder.

The bylaw was inspired by last year’s sale of the historic Thomas Clark house, built circa 1760, to a builder who wants to build two homes on the property where the house stands.

The Commission has been trying to save the house from demolition, and the builder has agreed to hold of razing the oldest portion of the house until they can move it off the property. An addition to the house, built much later, has already been torn down, and construction of one new home has begun in its place.

The Clark house would not be covered by by the delay bylaw, said Rojas.

Rojas said he has no problem with preserving historic buildings. The issue is the cutoff date that triggers the delay.

Sami Baghdady, Chair of Belmont’s Planning Board, said that the Planning Board also has concerns about the fifty-year trigger for demolition delay.

“The Planning Board’s position is that we should have a date certain,” he said. “That would add certainty to the process.”

If the rule is fifty years, he said, then every single year, new buildings would become subject to the bylaw simply because of the passage of time. Homeowners would find themselves suddenly subject to a new set of restrictions on what they could do with their properties.

The date could be set, said Baghdady, based on era.

“For example, Planning Board would favor a year like 1921, or 1931 for buildings, which would allow buildings built during the Great Depression era to be the cutoff date,” he said.

That date could move in the future, he said.

He said that the Planning Board worked with the Commission on the bylaw, and the date was the only part of the bylaw they disagreed on.

Michael Smith and Paul Bell, cochairs of the Commission, could not be reached for comment.

Smith has said that he intends to put the demolition delay bylaw on the warrant for the Annual Town Meeting.

This year’s Annual Town Meeting will be held on April 23, according to the Town Clerk’s Office.

Evan Allen can be reached at evan.allen@globe.com

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