Should a private property be placed on the list of “Potentially Significant Structures” or “Preferably Preserved Historic Structures”, without the consent, or despite the objection, of the property owner? This question is at the nexus of a discussion begun during November's Town Meetings that was left hanging at the end, due to lack of a quorum. The Board of Selectmen agreed to resurrect, at their January 3rd meeting, the Instructional Motion initially presented by Erin Calvo-Bacci. The motion asked for an appeal process to be put into place that would 1) allow a property owner to appeal the initial placement onto a list of historically significant properties and/or 2) an appeal process to the six (6) month demolition delay bylaw that is imposed on such properties.
While the majority of homeowners in Reading, including myself, will never be affected by the possibility of their properties being designated as historically significant, I believe we should all sit up and take notice when matters that impact private property rights are under discussion in town government.
Last night, the Historical Commission's answer to the question asked above was an emphatic “Yes!” Recently, ~100 properties were added to an existing list of approximately 240 previously designated historically significant properties. Members of the Historical Commission that were present at last night's meeting made it very clear that a property owner's request to be excluded from the designation/list was insufficient grounds for consideration. The burden of proof is on the property owner to prove to the Historical Commission that the structure doesn't actually meet the criteria that was used to determine its historical significance. This was the only option available for the recently added properties and it was stated that one homeowner was able to get his home excluded from the list this way.
If I am understanding correctly, my reading of town by-law that relates to these discussions reveals that a vote of four (4) Historical Commission members and a certified letter to the property owner mailed 30 days prior to the vote, are all that is necessary to be placed in our inventory of Potentially Significant Structures. Perhaps this should be revisited? The Historical Commission representatives were also completely resistant to the notion that any retroactive adjustments take place to the list as it stands at this time. There was no reason other than 'lack of precedence' given. Because of the potential negative economic impact that the Demolition Delay bylaw might impose, particularly for a commercial property, the bylaw should be reviewed and appeal parameters considered. In no way do I mean to suggest we enable or allow a mass exodus of properties from our historical inventory. But neither do we want to bring a property owner, kicking and screaming, to the table if they do not want to eat. There must be a way for reasonable people to make this better.