Boston-area towns seek ways to slow razing of historic homes
When word spread through their Winchester neighborhood last year that a century-old Georgian-style home could be demolished to make way for two new houses, residents grew alarmed that another of the town's historic estates might fall to the wrecking ball.
Those fears gave way to relief as neighbors worked with the developer to design a project that is restoring the stately Grove Street home and adding a second house beside it.
"It's been a compromise and a happy medium," said Jennifer Adams, who lives nearby.
Yet not far from there, neighbors are watching warily the fate of another old house. A developer purchased the 1900 home at Harrington and Bacon streets last September and has a permit to demolish it, according to the town's Historical Commission.
"Winchester has some of the most eclectic and cohesive architecture. We have amazing streetscapes," said Heather von Mering, chair of the Historical Commission. But those historic resources are "being eaten away slowly."
Winchester residents aren't alone in worrying about the loss of old homes. As Greater Boston's real estate market picks up steam, so, too, have concerns about the pace of teardowns, and in particular the razing of venerable homes to make way for larger or multiple dwellings that critics often contend do not fit with the neighborhood.
At Town Meetings this spring, Winchester and other suburban communities — including Wenham, Arlington, Lexington, and Duxbury — are weighing measures aimed at slowing the trend.
"Usually when the real estate market is hot, that's when we see more of these teardowns and when we see a peak in concerns. That's happening now in many communities," said Marc Draisen, executive director of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council. "In many cases, modest homes are being replaced with extremely lavish homes that are tight on the site and don't fit with the character of the neighborhood. They're also less affordable."
— At Winchester's Town Meeting, which begins April 25, residents will consider a Historical Commission proposal to expand the number of homes covered under a bylaw that allows the commission to delay the demolition of historically significant houses for up to one year. And the Planning Board seeks tighter zoning controls for residential projects, including expanding triggers that require site plan reviews.
— Lexington's Town Meeting, which begins Monday, March 21, will consider zoning changes that would restrict the size of homes based on lot size and establish height limits for older properties grandfathered from setback limits, said Aaron Henry, the town's planning director.
— In Wenham, the April 2 Town Meeting will vote on a proposed demolition-delay bylaw that would apply to all homes built before 1860.
— Arlington's Town Meeting, which starts April 25, will take up zoning proposals by a residents group to bolster controls on home building. One would require a 30-foot distance between homes, and another would eliminate a loophole in a bylaw requiring a special permit for large additions. Arlington's Redevelopment Board is also proposing added controls on the design of new homes in certain districts.
— Duxbury's Historical Commission is seeking changes to the town's demolition-delay bylaw, including extending from six months to a year the maximum delay period. After the proposal drew opposition from other town boards, the article was postponed by Town Meeting at the commission's request on March 14. But the panel plans to pursue the proposal for future action, said commission member R. Taggart Carpenter.
In Winchester alone, 116 single-family homes have been demolished since 2010, including 29 in each of 2014 and 2015, the highest number since at least 2000, said Jack LeMenager, a member of the Historical Commission. Seven have been torn down so far this year.
"Many of our historic homes are falling to the whims of out-of-town developers with no review process or any notification to the neighbors," LeMenager wrote in an e-mail. "The town is gradually losing its heritage and unique character."
Brian Szekely, Winchester's planning director, said concerns about teardowns extend beyond the loss of historic homes. He said many also object that the houses replacing them are out of scale with the neighborhood and worry about the loss of medium-priced homes.
"A lot of the $500,000 to $600,000 homes in Winchester are being targeted for demolition and what are coming in are $1.5 million to $2 million homes," he said.
Only 700 of Winchester's 7,637 properties are subject to protection under the town's current demolition-delay bylaw, which covers all homes on the National Register of Historic Places and some on the state's historic inventory, according to von Mering of the Historical Commission. The proposed change would make all homes built in 1940 or before eligible.
Some of the proposals to control teardowns in the suburbs are meeting resistance, however.
Amie Pettengill, a real estate agent for Coldwell Banker in Lexington, said the proposed restrictions in that town should be a concern to anyone "counting on their property value and the sale of their home to assist them in old age. Builders are not willing to pay top dollar for such restrictions."
Jason Brickman, a Bedford-based residential developer, said if a community's residents want to impose new controls on home building, he would respect that. But "I believe in property rights," he said. "If someone has a property that is worth a million dollars to a developer but can't sell it to the builder because of restrictions on that property . . . I think that could be a problem — that could be their retirement, their nest egg."
Brickman said most developers consider the needs of the neighborhood when they build a home, but that the size of houses is a function of the market. "People wouldn't be building big houses if there wasn't a demand for big houses," he said.
Kevin Brett, co-owner of the firm restoring the home on Grove Street in Winchester, said the project illustrates the good that can result when developers seek common ground with neighbors. Though the site did not come under the demolition bylaw, his firm voluntarily worked with residents to devise the plan.
But while he supports preserving other historic dwellings in town, Brett cautioned against over-restricting future developments.
"There's got to be a give and take between saving what is iconic about Winchester and its local architectural heritage but also offering opportunities for people to provide employment, and to provide homes for the town to grow," he said.
Henry, Lexington's planning director, said communities are trying to find the right balance between preserving property rights and achieving their planning goals.
"Where is that line? For all these towns battling this issue right now, that is really kind of the underlying thought," he said.