To the editor:
Tom Killin Dalglish’s article (‘Much of Tiverton Four Corners up for sale’ 12/09/12) about the sale offer of 14 historic buildings at Tiverton Four Corners raises an urgent question about the future of this iconic, scenic and treasured part of Tiverton. Jim and Roz Weir, Terry Holland and other Four Corners property owners should be commended for their outstanding stewardship and restoration of historic properties, which are community assets that enhance property values and draw tourists to the village.
But what about the future? There are at present no effective regulatory measures in place to protect these historic buildings from demolition or disfigurement, despite the U.S. Interior Department’s and the RI Historic Preservation and Heritage Commission’s designation of Four Corners, in 1974, as an historic district with numerous properties on the National Register of Historic Places. It is up to the Town of Tiverton to take additional steps to help assure that this 300-year old classic New England village has a future.
Seventeen of Rhode Island’s 39 municipalities now have historic district zoning programs in place to encourage and incentivize owners of historic properties to make exterior alterations or additions in a manner consistent with historic character. This strategy might work for Four Corners.
Protecting Four Corners’ rural village ambiance has economic as well as cultural value. The many small and locally-owned shops benefit from the visitors who enjoy the charm of the neighborhood’s historic ambiance. As the Newport County Chamber of Commerce recently noted “preserving our architectural resources … offers a significant return on investment by attracting quality visitors who spend more time and money in our local economy.”
An environmental benefit of historic district zoning is that the ‘greenest’ building is one that’s already there. Demolition and new construction consumes energy, leaves a heavy carbon footprint and depletes natural resources. Adaptive re-use of existing historic buildings is good for the environment. It should also be noted that any new construction on undeveloped land in the Four Corners area is very problematical due to the severe environmental constraints in the Nonquit Pond watershed.
Another benefit is that adoption of an historic district zone would automatically make Tiverton a ‘certified local government’ and eligible for government grants for which Tiverton is not now eligible. These grants could be used to improve Four Corners by implementing pedestrian amenities, building sidewalks, calming traffic and other enhancements.
Historic district zoning need not be a heavy-handed regulatory burden, if designed properly. Owners who wish to make significant alterations to the exterior of their building would apply to an ‘historic district commission’, made up largely of neighborhood volunteers. The commission would review the proposed work for consistency with the U.S. Secretary of the Interior’s ‘Standards for Rehabilitation’ of historic structures. Ideally, the commission would work cooperatively with the owner to come up with design standards and building materials that were affordable and practical as well as compatible with the historic fabric of the neighborhood. In many cases, these alterations would then qualify for federal and state tax credits. If demolition were necessary due to the condition of the building, a new building on the old site would be subject to historically compatible design standards.
Historic district zoning should not be imposed on a neighborhood. The residents, merchants and property owners in the proposed district must be knowledgeable and supportive if the program is to work properly. Perhaps the time has come for the greater Four Corners community to consider historic district zoning as a strategy capable of achieving a widely-held community goal of protecting a very special place from unnecessary demolition and insensitive exterior alterations.
Stuart B. Hardy