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Demolition delay bylaw spurs debate, amendments, as Belmont Town Meeting approaches

Posted by Evan Allen  April 20, 2012 12:06 PM

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A proposed demolition delay bylaw, long-planned and much-debated, is picking up amendments as it heads to Belmont’s Town Meeting, which begins on April 23, according to bylaw review committee chairman Charles Hamann.

The bylaw, put forth by the Historic District Commission, would give the Commission the power to delay demolition of any building it deems “historically significant” for up to a year while alternatives to razing are discussed.

Town Meeting members and members of several groups in Belmont, including the Planning Board and the Economic Development Advisory Committee, have raised concerns that the bylaw is too broad, and would tangle plans to demolish nearly any building in Belmont.

The bylaw defines a significant building as one that is over 50 years old and is on the National Register of Historic Places, is eligible for that Register, is associated with historic people or events, or is architecturally important.

The Planning Board has estimated that 80% of the buildings in Belmont are at least 50 years old. The amendments to the bylaw attempt to reduce the number of buildings that would be affected by the bylaw.

The first amendment, submitted by Town Meeting member Adam Dash, would change several aspects of the bylaw, said Hamann at a warrant briefing on Thursday night.

First, he said, town properties would not be subject to the bylaw.

Second, the length of time that the Commission can delay demolition will be shortened from one year to six months.

And finally, the demolition delay process would only apply to buildings that have already been designated “historically significant.” In other words, it would prevent developers from being surprised by the news that the building they hope to demolish is historically significant when they file a demolition permit.

The modification would basically force the Historic District Commission to come up with an index of all historic buildings in town if they hoped to prevent their demolition. Historic District Commission cochair Michael Smith has said that the Commission is planning to do just that, but said that it may take several years to complete.

The second amendment, said Hamann, was submitted by the Planning Board. It replaces the requirement that a building be over 50 years old to be considered historically significant with a requirement that the building must have been built before 1921.

“It will freeze the number of houses that are subject to this bylaw,” said Hamann.

An often-cited concern about the bylaw as it is written is that the 50-year cutoff would create confusion by including more buildings every year because it is a rolling date, and that it will slowly encompass more and more buildings that are not historically significant, needlessly snarling potential development.

Town Clerk Ellen O'Brien Cushman said that the amendments will be officially submitted on the floor of Town Meeting. Members will vote on the Dash amendment first, she said, and then on the Planning Board amendment. They will then vote on the entire article as amended.

Belmont’s Town Meeting begins on April 23. Non-financial articles, including the demolition delay bylaw, will be discussed in the April session. Financial articles, including the town’s budget, will be discussed later at a session that begins on May 14.

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

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