Town launches Preserve Cumberland initiative

Town launches Preserve Cumberland initiative

The town is seeking measures to help protect historic properties such as St. Patrick Church on Broad Street. (Breeze photo by Ethan Shorey)
Goal of the plan is to save old properties

CUMBERLAND – Town officials are now considering what they’re calling the Preserve Cumberland initiative, a new comprehensive approach to slowing the destruction of the town’s historic fabric.

Planning and Community Development Director Jonathan Stevens presented the multi-faceted but unsolidified plan at the Nov. 20 Town Council meeting, saying it would set a new standard for preserving the town’s history.

The proposed initiative would establish financial incentives for appropriate restoration of old buildings deemed significant, an idea council members say they can get behind but are concerned could lead to other residents subsidizing the lost taxes.

Town officials began researching drafting an ordinance to promote preservation earlier this month after the shocking demolition of the 200-year-old Hawkins House near Franklin Farm on Abbott Run Valley Road, said Stevens. That destruction was a “terrible tragedy,” he said, and many other buildings of significance have been destroyed or inappropriately altered in recent years.

“The tearing away of Cumberland’s historic fabric is not necessary. It is not good for our quality of life, and it erodes our sense of place and community character,” said Stevens.

One of the most prominent buildings the town is looking to save is the former St. Patrick Church on Broad Street, a building in jeopardy of being lost as the land is marketed for other uses.

The town is hiring a consultant specializing in adaptive reuse of churches to create a report on the economic viability of redeveloping that site, with an emphasis on density and parking relief that would be adequate for reinvestment in the building.

“We don’t need to lose this church to another national drug store chain,” Stevens told the council.

That report would provide a foundation for conversations with the Diocese of Providence about preserving the property while allowing a purchase at fair market value, he said.

The most effective means of protecting additional buildings is for the council to enact local historic districts, said Stevens. Within those districts, all demolition, new construction, and exterior alterations, but not interior changes, would have to be approved by the Historic District Commission.

In having to submit a plan to the town for upgrading a building, a property owner benefits from the technical review that would then take place, said Stevens. Most applications would be approved, and most project designs would be improved through the process. Property values are proven to stay stronger in local historic districts.

Though there’s no official proposal yet for the council to consider, Stevens said the town would rely on a local property owners’ guide developed last year on best practices for restoring properties in local historic districts, as well as a 1998 survey listing the town’s properties of significance.

Town staff would comb through a master list and select the 25 most significant properties that are at potential risk of being destroyed, said Stevens. A letter to homeowners would notify them of the town’s sense of urgency of having them included.

As an incentive, said Stevens, the council should consider an ordinance authorizing a modest property tax reduction for those owners that undertake substantial exterior maintenance or restoration projects through the Historic District Commission’s property owners’ guide.

In other planned moves, the town would:

• Approach the General Assembly about authorizing the town to forestall demolition of significant properties that are not on the National Register of Historic Places.

• Have the Building Department enforce “demolition by neglect” provisions in code to prevent properties from falling into disrepair.

• Ask Historic District Commission members to volunteer to perform individual inspections, creating a second tier of priority property sites.

• And appoint a qualified person to replace the late Historic District Commission Chairman Dave Balfour, “one of our town’s finest historic preservation champions,” said Stevens, making sure Balfour’s legacy of dedication to Cumberland’s history lives on.

New Town Planner Glenn Modica, Town Solicitor Kelley Morris, and Mayor Jeff Mutter all played big roles in drafting this plan, said Stevens.

Councilor Scott Schmitt said he would want to see residents’ tax break based only on the improvements and not the overall value of a property, saying he doesn’t want to see other residents start “subsidizing these particular property owners.” For instance, if someone did $50,000 worth of improvements on a $100,000 home, the break would only be on the $50,000.

Stevens said he’s confident officials can draft a plan based on best practices everyone can get behind.

Mutter said the idea in providing a financial incentive mirrored the town’s previous effort to maintain farmland. It recognizes that if the effort is important to the town, “then perhaps we need to entice that,” he said. The town would be showing appreciation to homeowners who maintain the exterior of their home in a way that preserves the town’s history. Nothing is drafted yet, he said, and officials will be looking at what other municipalities do and what the state enables.

Schmitt said he wants to try to balance owners’ rights with the needs of an initiative such as this. He said he can see the tax break being an issue, but is keeping an open mind.

Stevens said a local incentive helps residents “move into the mindset of restoration.”

Councilor Robert Shaw asked about a particular home in his district that wasn’t included on the list provided by Stevens, and Stevens responded that the town will consider adding it. Shaw noted the sense of place found in North Smithfield’s Union Village because of standards in that town.

Councilor Mike Kinch asked about what’s happening with the old Walcott House on Nate Whipple Highway, and Stevens responded that the owner continues to battle with his insurance company but intends to restore that building after it was previously damaged by falling trees.

Preservationist Craig Johnson told the council he believed an earlier effort to get that home a historic designation helped save it. He said it’s a “gem of a property” and he hopes the plan to preserve it comes together.

Mutter recognized Johnson for his efforts in saving old buildings, saying no one in Cumberland is more dedicated to that cause. He said he recognizes there’s a “sensitive balance” on preservation versus property rights, but said the town recognizes the need to save more of its history.

State Rep. Jim McLaughlin urged the council to look on this initiative favorably, saying the town has plenty of history to preserve that many people don’t know about.

“How much more are we going to give up to progress?” he said.

Comments

My thanks to everyone involved in this effort!