Owners of homes 100 years old or older will need town permission to demolish or substantially alter them, if a series of ordinance changes pushed for by the Warren Voluntary Historic District Commission (WVHDC) are enacted by the Warren Town Council.
The changes were introduced to the town council Tuesday night and received a mixed reception.
Several, including Cathie Tattrie, said the proposal is sure to be unpopular with many residents, and she and council president Chris Stanley said they worry about the changes’ impact on property rights. However, one councilor said the measures deserve a hearing, regardless of their predicted unpopularity.
“It’s a first reading,” councilor Scott Lial said in response to concerns raised by Ms. Tattrie. “People that aren’t in favor of this aren’t here. Well, why? (The meeting) was posted properly. I don’t understand why you defend someone who’s not here.”
What’s at stake
Under Section 4-32 of the zoning ordinance (Demolition of buildings or structures in the National Historic Waterfront District), no building or structure located in the district can be demolished unless the town council has granted a waiver. The proposed changes broaden and expand that section in several ways.
First, demolition — not currently defined in the existing ordinance — would be defined as the removal of “an existing structure entirely or in substantial part” — specifically, 50 percent or more of the building, not including decks or porches.
Second, the changes broaden the ordinance’s reach, from just the historic district to the entire town, for buildings 100 years old or older.
“The VHDC over the years has seen changes to historic properties,” said board vice chairman Ed Theberge. “We’re trying to protect them.”
One example is a late 1800s house at 5 Westminster St. owned by Hirum Jamiel. Mr. Jamiel received a building permit last year to remodel the house, and few if any neighbors objected at the time. Since then, though, the house has been drastically altered. Little is left of the original two-story structure, which now rises three floors, and the home has drawn the ire of the Warren Preservation Society and some neighbors.
The ordinance change was precipitated mostly by that case, Warren Preservation Society’s Eileen Collins said, because there was no clear definition of “demolition” to guide Warren Building Inspector William Nash.
“It just went way too far,” Ms. Collins said prior to Tuesday’s meeting.
Levels of review
The proposed changes not only define demolition and broaden the ordinance’s reach, but also add additional layers of review. As written, the proposal:
* Requires a VHDC review of all demolition waiver applications before they go to a hearing in front of the town council.
“WVHDC shall comment on historical context, architectural value and any replacement structure.”
* Call for the VHDC to make recommendations to the council on demolition waivers should the planned demolition or alteration include changes to the roof of the structure.
* Impose a fine of $1,000 per day for buildings demolished without an approved waiver.
Though Mr. Theberge told the council that the VHDC’s role is purely advisory, and the real reason for the proposal is to “normalize” policy across town, several councilors worried about the far-reaching impacts the proposed changes could have.
“There’s a whole lot of people that are not going to be comfortable” with the proposal, Ms. Tattrie said.
“I would have the same concern, I think, that Cathy does,” added Mr. Stanley, who called for a workshop on the matter. “There are some property rights issues and things like that.”
Town solicitor Anthony DeSisto said he’d like to review the changes and bring the proposal back at the council’s next meeting in June. Some of the wording could use a legal eye, he said.
“I’d like to make sure it’s a structurally sound ordinance that doesn’t have to be demolished later by the town council,” he quipped.
That’s fine, Mr. Lial said, imploring the council to take real action on the ordinance, either way, instead of just dragging its feet.
“I disagree with the council president that a workshop is always the answer,” Mr. Lial said. “We’re at the point where we’re delaying things and taking no action. I want to make sure we don’t push this along ad infinitum.”