Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Debate over Winchester historic districts continues

By Meghan Foley Sentinel Staff

WINCHESTER — The debate over the future of Winchester’s historic districts just got a little more complicated.
At the same time a petition warrant article is seeking to abolish the Winchester Historic District Commission, the commission is proposing better-defined regulations for allowing work on buildings in the historic districts.
It’s unclear if the events are tied in any way to each other, but Historic District Commission members say at this point one is feeding off the other.
Those in support of the Historic District Commission say its oversight is necessary to preserve a town that has already lost so much history. Opponents say the commission has overstepped its bounds on many occasions, and that some of the requirements to preserve historic buildings aren’t financially feasible for private property owners.
The town received the petition warrant article on Dec. 11. The proposed regulations were filed about the same time.
According to state law, a historic district can be abolished by the passage of a petition warrant article as long as the petition is signed by 25 registered voters, and the historic district commission holds two public hearings about the petition at least 15 days apart.
Historic District Commission member Julia Ferrari said Tuesday that the commission has been working on the proposed regulations for at least three years in an attempt to further define what is already in place.
“We’re just trying to simplify things, and not have to go back to square one every single time,” she said.
The commission has been relying on the regulations in the town’s historic district ordinance to guide its decisions, but there can be inconsistencies from year to year, depending on how the ordinance is interpreted, she said.
There have been instances when someone will ask a question one year, and the commission will answer it. The same question would be posed the next year, and the commission would have to go through the process again to come to the same answer, she said.
Voters at town meeting in March 1997 approved the adoption of the historic district ordinance, which established the five-member commission appointed by selectmen, and the borders of the town’s two historic districts in Winchester and the village of Ashuelot.
The Winchester district includes a section of Main Street from Chapel Street southwest to the Route 10 bridge, and portions of Michigan and High streets and Richmond Road. The Ashuelot district covers a section of Ashuelot Main Street, and Old Hinsdale and Back Ashuelot roads.
Since the Historic District Commission was established, some of its decisions have led to tension between its members and property owners.
In 2011, a proposal to build a Dollar General on a Main Street property that hosted a roughly 200-year-old house in the historic district became the center of a controversy that ended with a legal battle. The property, 71 Main St., is owned by Margaret A. Sharra, Winchester’s land use administrator and code enforcement officer, and her brothers, James S. and Michael P. Shannon.
The proposed regulations the commission is seeking to adopt are included in a 32-page document that covers a variety of activities in the town’s historic districts.
Those activities include landscaping; installing, repairing and maintaining lighting, windows, doors, porches, walkways and driveways; the placement of utilities and renewable energy systems; using appropriate paint, siding and roofing materials on buildings; and building renovations, additions and demolitions.
An additional nine-page document outlines guidelines the commission should follow in considering applications for demolishing and moving historic structures.
Ferrari said both documents were drafted based on regulations followed by other communities with historic districts.
A public hearing about the proposed regulations will be held Monday, Jan. 27, at 7 p.m. at Winchester Town Hall.

Meghan Foley can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1436, or Follow her on Twitter @MFoleyKS.

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