Amherst Historical Commission eyes changes to demolition delay bylaw

  • Amherst Town Hall

Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 06, 2018

AMHERST — When Amherst College wanted to remove an 80-year-old fence surrounding one of its academic buildings, the institution couldn’t immediately take down the historic enclosure, but instead was forced to wait an extra year to undertake demolition.

Similarly, when the Pacific Lodge of Masons sought to tear down the Chauncey Lessey House on Spring Street, it was required to put off razing the 19th century home, which it did for a period of time.

Numerous other buildings and structures in town that are at least 50 years old have similarly gotten caught up in what is known as the demolition delay bylaw, which is overseen by the Historical Commission.

When used, it can postpone future development, but also can be an incentive to be creative in saving historic structures and the streetscape of Amherst.

Town Meeting first adopted the bylaw in 1999 as a six-month delay, and amended the bylaw in 2005 to extend the delay to a full year.

The Historical Commission, with the support of the Planning Board, is now contemplating several more changes to the bylaw that could come to Town Meeting this spring that could include extending delays to 18 months, but would also bring more clarity to the process of determining what projects are subject to the bylaw, as well as a provision that would allow the delay to end prematurely.

“We’re trying to make it a fairly clear process for everyone,” said Planning Director Christine Brestrup.

The Historical Commission held a public hearing on the changes to what is known as Article 13 Monday at Town Hall.

Currently any building or structure that is deemed to have historical, architectural or geographic importance that would be substantially changed or destroyed can be impacted by the bylaw.

Brestrup said some elements of the current bylaw are confusing, which has led to more projects being brought to the commission for review than in the past by Building Commissioner Robert Morra.

Morra is charged with reviewing what projects planned for demolition that are subject to the bylaw.

The bylaw states that the building commissioner is to notify the Historical Commission whenever an applicant pulls a demolition permit on a building at least 50 years old.

These are then brought to the Historical Commission, which decides if it is justified in holding a hearing.

The Historical Commission can mandate a yearlong delay if its members agree a significant structure is being impacted.

Senior Planner Nathaniel Malloy said changes would also include a more straightforward application and administrative review process, updated review criteria, and an expiration to the demolition permit.

It would also mean reviews of changes to structures in the Local Historic District, both the Emily Dickinson district on Main, Triangle and Lessey streets, and the Sunset-Lincoln neighborhoods district, would be handled outside the Historical Commission.

Amherst Business Improvement District Executive Director Sarah la Cour said she is providing input to ensure that her concerns, which include whether it is appropriate to extend the bylaw to 18 months and make it more difficult to develop properties, are being addressed.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.