Sunday, October 24, 2010

The "Gazette" on the Historical Commission: Demolition Delay Imposed on House and Barn Wins Praise from Public

 "Year-long demolition delay placed on 19th-century Amherst farmhouse, barn,"  Scott Merzbach reports in Saturday's Gazette, on the recent Historical Commission proceedings involving the Hawthorne property, acquired by the town for purposes of creating recreational spaces and affordable housing. Scott takes his characteristic pains to capture some of the subtleties and details of our decisions within the context of a brief article.  He notes both the town's promises of flexibility, and public skepticism over the planning process to date.  He concludes with praise for the Historical Commission from concerned members of the Community Preservation Act Committee (CPAC):
The letter, signed by Vince O'Connor and Mary Streeter, both members of the CPA Committee, and Denise Barberet and Ellen Kosmer [NOTE: Ellen is likewise a member, and Denise, a former member; JW], reads, "We urge the commission to continue to push staff to get off of their laurels and go beyond their initial assessments of the Hawthorne house by investigating creative sources of funding and innovative partnerships and community involvement that could make rehabilitation and reuse of the house economically feasible, and to be open, responsive, and respectful of both public participation in the process and of committee input."
I haven't actually seen the letter myself (I assume it went directly to Town Hall and that I will therefore receive it by the time of our next meeting). The goal of finding projects that combine historic preservation and affordable housing has, however, been one of the top desiderata that we share with our colleagues on CPAC, about which we have had many and cordial conversations. The trick, of course, is getting all the details to line up: finding the site that is both intrinsically appropriate (proximity to to infrastructure and services) and yet financially viable can, as we have repeatedly found, be maddeningly difficult. It therefore seemed particularly worth pursuing in this case, if only to put the lingering doubts to rest.

As noted earlier, now that the procedures are completed, I will be able to offer a full account of the deliberations and rationale, which help to explain our actions in the cases under consideration as well as the underlying rationale of preservation policy, which is an ever-changing mix of general principles—in our case, guided by the Amherst Preservation Plan and Master Plan—and the contingent conditions deriving from the site in question.

For the moment, just two points and one announcement:
  1. From the standpoint of the Commission, at least, this was not in any way an adversarial process.  Although some earlier public comments from the former Town Manager unfortunately suggested that the Town was planning to act precipitously, subsequent public and private statements from both Director of Conservation and Development David Ziomek and Town Manager John Musante made clear that the Town lacked the desire, plans, and funds for action anytime soon.  Both officials therefore affirmed that they would gladly accommodate themselves to whatever decision the Historical Commission might take.
  2. Even though the Town indicated that it was in no hurry to demolish, the Commission felt that imposing a delay that could be lifted if conditions were met represented the best means of satisfying our mutual interests and reassuring a skeptical public that felt its wishes and concerns had not been heard earlier.
  3. For a variety of reasons, the public process promised by the Town concerning the property did not take place before the demolition delay hearing. The Town has now announced that it will begin on the morning of November 6 with a site visit for interested residents (see the calendar, above for details).

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