Sentinel Editorial..Cooler heads prevail
Posted: Tuesday, March 18, 2014
Thus, our expectation s were low when the warrant to be presented at Winchester’s January deliberative session included a measure to rescind the town’s historic districts. At a hearing on the topic, several residents claimed to have been victimized by the district commission overstepping its bounds. Others, even more alarmingly, contended the town doesn’t have any history left to preserve and thus, there’s no need for the district.
Margaret A. Sharra, Winchester’s land-use administrator and code enforcement officer, said at the hearing the commission simply had not done its job as intended since it was created in 1997. It is worth noting Sharra owns property that several years ago was proposed for conversion to a dollar store. The commission refused to allow it. Sharra’s name was not attached to the petition warrant article, but several of her close friends and relatives were instrumental in getting it on the ballot.
In a state and region that ardently embraces its history, historic districts have become a valuable tool for preserving the aesthetics of the past. They are not always the right tool for a particular location, and they can result in picayune and arbitrary enforcement. Still, they represent an important arrow in the quivers of preservationists. Ironically, those most opposed to historic districts are often the owners of the very property they aim to protect, because they’re the ones whose use of their property is at stake. There are arguments to be made on both sides regarding property values within such districts, and the districts are often lightning rods for complaints and warnings about what the community “will become.”
But such debates usually take place when the districts are proposed, not decades later.
Coming out of the January hearing, there was little reason for optimism in Winchester for an amicable resolution.
There was one possible middle ground, however. The district commissioners had proposed an overhaul of their own regulations, and they submitted suggested revisions to the rules at about the same time that the petition emerged.
The 32 pages of revamped regulations may have eased the minds of some voters. Or perhaps it was simply the idea that the district commissioners were listening to the complaints and open to discussion. Maybe it was simply a matter of one faction in town outpolling another when all was said and done.
Whatever the case, voters last week chose not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, rejecting the petition article and keeping the historic districts in place — for now.
The town could find itself right back in the same situation entering 2015, but we choose to be hopeful the whole episode results in better communication among the officials and property owners involved, and that the proposed regulation update clarifies for everyone what’s expected within those zones.If so, it could be an historic development.