Emotions ran high as the Falmouth Historical Commission hosted its second public meeting to solicit feedback from the community on proposed historic district boundary adjustments. Members of the community spoke out against the proposal Tuesday evening, August 6, in the Civil Defense Room at town hall.
About 20 residents attended the public meeting. Fewer than five of the attendees did not own homes already in a historic district. Many of the residents hailed from the North Falmouth and West Falmouth historic districts.
None of the attendees raised their hands when asked by a member of the board if they were in favor of the proposed changes.
In early July, the historical commission announced a proposal to adjust the boundary lines in all seven historic districts. The current boundaries follow 100- to 250-foot setbacks from main roads in each of the districts. The districts were formed in 1976.
The historical commission aims to adjust the boundary lines so they follow property lines for lots that touch the main street in each district. Edward Haddad, chairman of the historical commission, said the change would ensure that boundary lines no longer cut through the middle of houses or catch the corners of insignificant lots.
The historic districts encompass 1,019 properties. The proposed changes cut that number down to 893. When laying out the proposed boundary adjustments, members of the historical commission removed many properties that were included in the district solely because an access way touched the main road. They also removed newer buildings that were set back a significant distance from the street.
Despite a reduction in properties, the changes would add 106 houses and 132 accessory buildings to the districts.
Attorney Robert H. Ament argued that the so-called adjustment was really just an expansion in size. If a 10-acre property abuts the main road in a historic district and a historic home sits on it, the commission would absorb the whole lot under the proposed boundary change. This means the commission would have jurisdiction over a larger tract of land.
“The change will not add consistency because the boundaries will be based on the vagaries of property lines… boundary lines may be affected by zoning requirements in the different districts,” Mr. Ament said.
He suggested that the number of homeowners before the board would increase if the change were to be approved. “The cost of complying with the historical commission requirements in many cases greatly burdens homeowners and businesses in terms of construction, in terms of maintenance expenses, and in terms of energy efficiency,” Mr. Ament said.
Mr. Haddad cautioned against concerns about increased oversight. The historical commission works with homeowners who are looking to change structures visible from the street, he said. The proposed boundary adjustments will not give the historical commission control over minor changes to accessory structures in the rear of lots. When it comes to accessory structures like detached garages and sheds, the historical commission review process would only be triggered if the homeowner’s work required a building permit, Mr. Haddad explained. Changing the paint on a shed, for example, would not trigger review, according to Mr. Haddad.
In 2018, the historical commission issued 92 certificates of appropriateness for changes to historic structures, Mr. Haddad said. More than 60 of those certificates were approved administratively, without a hearing, he said.
Mr. Haddad added that the proposed boundaries would eliminate the need for certified plot plans to show where structures on the properties lie in relation to historic district boundaries. He noted that certified plot plans can cost around $500, an added expense to homeowners that would become unnecessary through boundary line adjustment.
The word “arbitrary” was tossed between homeowners and members of the board at the meeting. Residents alleged that following property lines was just as “arbitrary” or more “arbitrary” than using the existing setbacks.
Kim Strohm, senior warden of St. Barnabas Memorial Episcopal Church, agreed with Mr. Ament. She echoed concerns that the setbacks were not arbitrary and that a lot of time had gone into establishing them. “The members of St. Barnabas are opposed to this proposal,” she said.
Joseph P. Hurley III of Old Main Road said both he and his parents live in the North Falmouth Historic District. “I am before you tonight on behalf of myself, my wife, Heidi, and my parents to tell you that we all oppose the proposed expansion of the setback lines to follow property lines,” he said. Mr. Hurley told the commission he believed the proposal was unnecessary, excessive, and not in the spirit of the bylaws.
“I don’t think they’re arbitrary,” he said, in reference to the setbacks. Mr. Hurley noted that 126 properties could be removed from the district by a separate Town Meeting vote rather than an overall boundary adjustment.
Mr. Hurley expressed concern over the review process. “When we bought our house 10 years ago, the historic guidelines were just that, 10 pages of general guidelines. Now there are over a hundred pages of regulations that are really disguised as guidelines,” he said.
The historic districts have been in place since 1975. One person at the meeting asked why the commission was insisting on changing things now.
Another member of the community said the adjustments would change the dynamic of the neighborhood. She said that adding “extra hoops to jump through” would have an unintended consequence of limiting who could afford to live in the district.
During their regularly scheduled public meeting, members of the historical commission said that they need to clarify parts of the presentation and offer more compelling reasons for the change. The historical commission held another public meeting on the boundary plan last night and plans three more to solicit feedback leading up to Town Meeting: on August 14 at the Ratcliffe Room in Woods Hole Public Library; August 22 at the Hermann Foundation Meeting Room in the Falmouth Public Library; and September 3 at the Civil Defense Room in town hall. Lists of properties affected by the proposed changes and maps of boundary outlines can be found at: www.falmouthmass.us.