2017-11-08 / Front Page

Town committees discuss demolition and building guidelines for Bath historic district

by Trish Rudder

Two draft Landmark Commission ordinance amendments were discussed in a meeting between the town Ordinance Committee and Landmark Commission members on Monday, October 30. The proposed amendments concern the demolition of properties and construction of new structures within the Town of Bath Historic District.

Copies were given to the council members a few weeks ago, but the proposed language has not been discussed in a council meeting and has not been approved.

Ordinance committee chair and town recorder Susan Webster had said she had concerns about the proposed ordinances, and Mayor Scott Merki suggested on October 17 that the groups meet.

The meeting was attended by Ordinance committee members Rose Jackson and Elizabeth Skinner, three Landmark Commission members and a few town residents.

Webster said in the meeting that before the ordinances are passed into law, the Landmark Commission should inform the public by putting out a pamphlet to help people better understand the ordinance.

Landmark Commission head Larry Lower gave background information to help explain the role of the Landmark Commission. He said that the commission was created around 2005 and is allowed by state law. “Once it was created a survey was taken to establish where the landmarks are,” he said, and grant funding was received to do this.

The survey found those buildings of value and an historic district was established with 236 qualifying structures in the Town of Bath and the town is nationally recognized as such.

In 2009 the town was certified as a national historic district and certified by the local government, “and with the value of that, they are more eligible for grants,” Lower said.

He said people who are interested in learning more about the historic district are reading the free “Walking Tour” pamphlet guidebook that is available in the card racks located in the businesses and in the Travel Berkeley Springs office.

Lower said the commission has communicated to the public through articles in the newspaper and through workshops, but they have not been well attended. He said when addresses were changed for 911 mapping, the house addresses were changed, and the members have been trying to match up the old with the new house numbers to get them up to date.

He said the historic district can be updated every 10 years and there are structures in the district that are now eligible. Lower said later the Commission hopes to recommend updates to the survey and possibly the historic district boundary within the next couple of years.

He said owners need to know that historic structures are eligible for tax credits in an historic district. The tax credit is available because the state wants to make sure the structure is protected, Lower said.

For residential houses, homeowners can get a 20% tax credit for improving and rehabilitating their houses. An additional federal tax credit of 20% is also allowed.

The state passed a new law recently that allows tax credits of 25%, up from 10%, for improving and rehabilitating eligible commercial structures. Tax credits of 20% are also available from the federal government.

“We need to let these owners know through education,” Lower said.

Lower said that the town council approved expanding the commission from five to nine members, and its members have a strong interest in protecting the architectural, cultural and historic qualities of the town, but who also have experience in historic preservation.

He said its members initiated the development of a comprehensive long-term plan that includes updating the historic survey, preparing a preservation plan for the town historic district, improve mapping and educational materials, and suggesting ordinances that will help guide and support preservation of the historic district and its structures.

Commission members Tim Newton, who drafted the proposed ordinance regarding demolition guidelines, and David Abruzzi, who wrote the draft on new construction guidelines, joined the Landmarks Commission when the expansion was approved.

“They have good backgrounds in historic preservation and in historic structures,” Lower said.

“The draft ordinances need to be addressed before buildings are lost through demolition,” Lower said. And vacant properties can be developed to be consistent with the architecture already here. New construction guidelines are needed for new structures or to replace the ones lost, he said.

Webster said she wants residents of the town to make decisions, not residents from the county.

“We have succeeded in getting people who live in town and are committed to the town” as members of the Landmark Commission, Lower said.

“If you have concerns how the Landmark Commission is functioning, it should be taken to the Town of Bath council and that’s where any results or changes can be considered,” he added.

Newton told Webster there is no reason to fear the proposed guidelines. Before the demolition of a structure is approved, it needs to be reviewed by the Commission to learn what will be put in its place. Through the review, it might be suggested that instead of demolishing a structure, grants might be available to help the homeowner restore the structure, said Newton.

The new guidelines Newton drafted suggested a 12- month period before the building is demolished.

“The object is to protect the fabric of our town,” Newton said.

Under the proposed ordinance, any non-contributing structure can be demolished through the regular town permitting process after notification to the Landmark Commission to comment on replacement of any structure in the historic district, Lower said later.

Commission member Abruzzi said the Landmark Commission’s review is solely a recommendation to the town council.

The Landmark Commission researched other communities to see what guidelines are in place to protect their historic buildings, Lower said.

Webster said “total control is what the property owners don’t want.”

“All this is doing is putting in guidelines so that our historic buildings are protected,” Lower said.

Lower pointed out that adding these guidelines will enhance the town. And people that have the means to invest will recognize this as a good investment.

“The empty buildings are here and we hope people are looking at these investments,” he said.

Abruzzi addressed the design guidelines for new structures, which “seek to promote compatible development that is both responsive to the present day while being compatible with the historic character of the historic district,” the draft ordinance states.

“We need to work on how to preserve the structure already there,” Abruzzi said. “We don’t really worry about the color of the paint outside,” he said.

Lower said the Landmark Commission only makes recommendations that are based on Landmark Commission knowledge and review, but the town council makes the decision.

He said the improvements have been made in the building industry that offers more choices in maintaining an architectural design. “The industry has moved forward to make better windows that meets the historic look,” Lower said, as an example.

He suggested the ordinance committee look at the amendments and make suggestions.

“This is a process where there is no regulation or guidance to some regulations,” Lower said.

Webster put the Landmark Commission amendments on the town council agenda for discussion on Tuesday, November 7.

Webster said later that “what we have to have with each of these proposed amendments are public hearings before we go forward.”

----------------- Story updated on Nov. 9 to correct tax credit information ---------------

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New state law allows 25%

New state law allows 25% state tax credit for commercial buildings up from 10%. Residential properties remain at 20% state tax credit. This is a benefit of having a contributing structure within the Historic District.