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Reading will allow local appeal to demolition delay

Erin Calvo-Bacci holds a letter declaring her Reading property (at right) historic. The town will soon allow appeals of such designations.

Photos by Barry Chin/Globe Staff

Erin Calvo-Bacci holds a letter declaring her Reading property historic.

After Erin Calvo-Bacci and her husband, Carlo Bacci, sold their Wakefield home, the couple moved their young family into cramped quarters above their chocolate shop in Reading while they waited to pass papers on their Main Street commercial building and invest the proceeds in a new house.

But two years have passed, and the developer who had offered to buy the property is long gone. The deal fell apart when the Reading Historical Commission  deemed the 19th-century building worthy of preservation and added it — along with 98 others — to the town’s list of historic structures,  an inventory that includes about 350 sites.

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“Because of this new title, ‘historic,’ the developer walked away,” said Calvo-Bacci, noting that the designation means the local Historical Commission could delay demolition of her building for six months. For the developer, she said, “It was just too problematic.”

The family of five is still living in the two-bedroom apartment above the shop, their hopes for a new home dashed.

Upset by what happened, Calvo-Bacci volunteered to serve on a working group charged with reviewing the town’s demolition-delay bylaw. She wanted owners to have the right to appeal decisions made by the commission. When Calvo-Bacci’s property was added to the list in 2010, no such challenge existed.

Today, to the dismay of the Historical Commission, Reading is believed to be the first municipality in the state to have adopted a demolition-delay bylaw that includes a local appeals process. Under the revised regulation, which was approved at Town Meeting in November and is expected to go into effect this spring following a review by the attorney general’s office, there are two appeals available to property owners. 

The first allows owners to object to having their property labeled as a historic structure. The appeal would be heard by the five-member Historical Commission. An affirmative vote by at least four commission members would be required to place a structure on the town’s inventory over the owner’s objection.

Barry Chin/Globe Staff

The Chocolate Truffle on Main Street in downtown Reading.

The second allows owners to appeal a six-month demolition delay imposed by the Historical Commission to the Board of Selectmen, saving the owner the time and expense of a Superior Court battle. It is a unique appeal process; no decision by any other town board can be appealed to selectmen, said Reading Town Manager Peter I. Hechenbleikner, chief architect of the revised regulation.

“Most decisions are best made locally, whether appeals or land use decisions,” said Hechenbleikner, who called the new bylaw “more customer-friendly.”

This is the second time the town has altered the bylaw. In 2011, the waiting period was trimmed from one year to six months. Reading is believed to be the first town in the state to reduce the delay period.

Although preservationists view the new bylaw as a major step backward, Calvo-Bacci and local property rights activists believe it balances Reading’s effort to protect historic structures with the rights of private owners. They note that owners like Calvo-Bacci, whose properties already have been deemed historically significant, may not appeal the designation.

“Our property is the biggest investment we make in our lifetime,” said Elaine Webb, who served with Calvo-Bacci on the working group and whose home was also added to the town’s list of historic structures in 2010.

“It’s really important that our rights and the opportunity to make decisions about our property is protected,” said Webb, who is pleased to have her home on the list. “That had been eliminated. There was really no way, prior to these changes, that a person could come to a hearing, make a case, and have [the Historical Commission] not include their home on the inventory. That has changed with these two appeals.”

“Reading’s done what the folks in Washington have such a hard time doing: Finding the middle ground where everybody wins,” said David Mancuso, who asked Town Meeting two years ago to add an appeals process to the demolition-delay bylaw. Although no action was taken on the petition, it ignited a firestorm of debate, prompting the Board of Selectmen to direct the Historical Commission to rework the bylaw and make it more user-friendly.

Commission members spent several months editing, but ultimately they had little say in the regulation’s final format, according to Historical Commission chairman Mark F. Cardono, who believes the new bylaw places in peril Reading’s architectural and cultural gems, key facets of the town’s storied heritage.

“The second appeal removes any substance from the bylaw,” said Cardono, noting that the Massachusetts Historical Society had told the Reading Historical Commission it was “unaware of any appeals process like this” in any other community. More than one-third of the Commonwealth’s 351 cities and towns have adopted demolition-delay bylaws.

Cardono has served on the commission since 1997; he joined two years after Town Meeting adopted Reading’s original demolition-delay bylaw to encourage saving the town’s historical structures from the wrecking ball.

The bylaw, he noted, pertains only to the total destruction of a property; it does not place restrictions on any interior work or exterior alteration or renovation. In addition, the bylaw does not prohibit an owner from razing a historic structure, but merely gives the Historical Commission time to work with the owner to seek alternatives to demolition.

“We’re not too thrilled,” Cardono said of the Historical Commission’s reaction to Reading’s new demolition-delay bylaw, noting that the town has lost 10 to 15 historically significant structures over the past two decades and, he fears, will probably lose more now that the commission’s ability to maintain the historical aspects of the town has been “greatly compromised” for the second time in as many years.

But Calvo-Bacci is hopeful Reading’s new bylaw will serve as a model for other communities.

“I want other towns to be able to adopt these kinds of appeals, too,” she said. “I really want this to be a fight that other people can benefit from.”

Brenda J. Buote may be reached at brenda.buote@gmail.com.
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