Letter to the Editor:Articles on Proposed Demolition Review Ordinance from City of Somerville

TO: The Editor


I would like to take the opportunity to clarify and correct some recent assertions made regarding the draft demolition review ordinance. The new draft has been the subject of many revisions over several years to replace the confusing and inadequate current ordinance. The intent of the revision is to clarify the language and make it less confusing while bringing it alongside the context of ‘SomerVision’.

The city planning department, in concert with the commission have had 3 public meetings which were advertised and run by the city on the draft demolition review ordinance already. The draft ordinance has also come before the legislative matters committee on two occasions and has been well aired and discussed with suggestions being included into the current draft. The city presentations to the public included slide presentations and a feedback mechanism and were professionally executed.

To address specific concerns articulated in the press.

a)    The ordinance is only about demolition of historic structures, not about development. The commission has no purview over what can be constructed on a site post demolition. Development falls under zoning, not historic preservation.

b)    The commission has no desire to place the city in a time capsule and make it one big historic district. The charter is to preserve the architectural and cultural history of the city where possible. Most of the demolition submissions presented to the commission go to demolition as the structures have little historic merit.

c)     Demolition of 25% or more of a structure according to the draft ordinance is to ensure that any demolition is not detrimental to the architectural heritage and that buildings are not demolished under a creeping serial demolition, which we see in some instances in order to avoid the ordinance. That an application comes before the commission does not mean it would be help up but would be considered and the applicant advised.

d)    The draft ordinance will not create a ‘city wide’ historic district. Historic Districts are designated as such and are not subject to demolition. Therefore they are not included in this ordinance.

e)    The new draft ordinance does stipulate that any structure over 75 years of age that is subject of a proposed demolition is to come before the commission for review. This is an extension of the current time frame which is currently set at 50 years. The city and the commission both feel that this period could be extended without imperiling historic structures.

f)     The new ordinance will extend the delay period to 24 months from 9 months. The city and the commission have found that the 9 month period is inadequate in many instances where a new buyer need be found or the structure is to be moved. Some developers have stated at public meetings that they don’t care and will just “wait out the delay period of 9 months and then raze the structure anyway’. The extension of time will assist in directing developers to properties that are suitable for demolition. Originally the draft set out 36 months but after the public meetings it was reduced to 24 months. Note that this is the maximum delay period, not a mandatory delay period for every application.

g)    The new ordinance contains a new provision to accelerate and reduce the delay period. This was not part of the current ordinance and is seen as a vehicle to facilitate a faster response to demolition where appropriate. Where an application can be fast tracked, this mechanism will enable this to happen.

h)    The new draft ordinance does not steal any zoning rights from any landowner. It has no relevance to the zoning rights of landowners, it is not a zoning issue and zoning is under a separate ordinance.

i)      The Commission does not tell property owners what they can or cannot do, unless the property is a designated Local Historic District where the commission has purview. In such instances the commission advises and collaborates with property owners to reach mutually agreeable outcomes. It should also be noted that the commission only has purview over what can been seen from the public way. There is no purview over other aspects of a local historic district designated structure.

j)      The Historic Commission has identified many properties as historic and many in the city are already designated Local Historic Districts. These local historic districts are outside the current demolition review ordinance already and would remain so under the new ordinance. Many more properties are awaiting historic designation.

k)     The Commission is comprised of a broad range of capable people that includes realtors, architects, business people, historic home owners, architectural historians and lawyers. Their deliberations and decisions are not dictated by the city except within city documented guidelines. They follow the recommendations and guidelines of the Secretary of the Interior for historic preservation. Commissioners are also subject to and must comply with the state open meeting laws and must qualify, and requalify, under the state ethics examination. This is to ensure a fair and equal treatment free of any corruption taint in a transparent setting.

The commission supports the city in the draft ordinance because it does clarify the language, reduces confusing ‘interpretations’ and simplifies the process of demolition review. The draft has been under development for several years and many city residents have contributed to it with their thoughts and recommendations.

By adopting the draft ordinance the city will enable development by clarification of the language, simplification of the process and a reduction in confusion resulting in time wasted by realtors, contractors and developers. It will further preservation and expedite development of sites recommended for redevelopment.

In the spirit of full disclosure it should also be known that:

a)    I am a commissioner with the historic preservation commission and attended all the public meetings.

b)    Dr Rizkallah is a developer in the city. He is the owner of an apartment building in Orchard Street (Chadwick) that is undergoing a total upmarket renovation following the displacement of its 24 low rent families last year. This building did not come before the commission.


Alan Bingham

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