Saving history: Cumberland seeks demolition delay, tax incentives

Saving history: Cumberland seeks demolition delay, tax incentives

This 1930 commercial/residential building at 945 Mendon Road, shown here being painted two weeks ago, is a key piece of the Berkeley Historic District’s fabric, says preservationist Craig Johnson, and he wants to see the town take every step to make sure it is preserved. (Breeze photo by Ethan Shorey)
Cumberland seeks demolition delay, tax incentives

CUMBERLAND – Town officials have put the state on notice that certain properties here are worthy of being saved, asking for permission to implement both a demolition delay and tax incentives to back that goal.

A resolution approved last week asks the General Assembly for enabling legislation allowing the town to craft ordinances establishing local historic tax credits and instituting a demolition delay.

Ordinances under the new Preserve Cumberland initiative would:

• Permit a tax reduction to owners of properties within local historic districts who undertake substantial exterior maintenance or rehabilitation projects in keeping with the Cumberland Historic District Commission’s Property Owners Guide and the Secretary of Interior’s Standards for Treatment of Historic Properties.

Once the legislation is passed by the General Assembly, the administration will propose an ordinance setting forth the parameters of the historic residence tax credit, using numbers from other communities, ranging from 5 percent to the maximum allowable 20 percent, to decide a figure for Cumberland.

• Enable the town to forestall demolition of significant properties not presently designated within local historic districts. These properties are listed in the National Register of Historic Places and/or the 1998 Rhode Island Preservation and Heritage Commission’s Architectural Survey of Cumberland.

“The town of Cumberland believes that preservation of Cumberland’s historic structures enhances an understanding of the town’s heritage, improves property values, fosters civic beauty, and promotes public education, pleasure, and welfare,” states the resolution.

Town Planner Glenn Modica told the council there are still a lot of details to be worked out, and seeking permission from the General Assembly was the “first step in a long road.” There are many more properties that the town plans to designate as historically significant, he said.

Local historian and preservationist Craig Johnson praised the move by the council at its meeting last Wednesday, Feb. 5, saying the two main efforts in the newly formed Preserve Cumberland initiative are similar to what has worked to preserve properties in other communities, and he hopes they’ll be used to maintain the eroding historic character of Cumberland.

“I’m all behind it, and hope it’s worthy of your approval,” he said.

Former Town Planner Josh O’Neill spoke as a town resident in commending Modica and Planning and Community Development Director Jonathan Stevens on prioritizing the “very important issue” of preserving historic properties. He said this plan is “well thought-out,” saying it’s key to have the tax incentives in addition to the demolition delay to encourage property owners to repair and maintain their properties. Even a small 5 percent tax abatement would be something toward saving historic properties, he said, and “I’m in favor of it.”

Councilor Lisa Beaulieu said she supports a great piece of legislation as a starting point to achieving the ultimate goal of maintaining the town’s historic fabric, and she looks forward to seeing the final result of the ordinances that come before the council.

Councilor Scott Schmitt said he’s in favor of historic preservation, but said he also supports property owners’ rights.

Schmitt asked Modica what sort of alternatives there might be to demolition. Modica said the Historic District Commission likes to work with an owner on viable solutions. If tax credits fail, he said, alternatives might be to sell a home or, as a last resort, move it.

Schmitt asked why the council couldn’t have a finalized ordinance to submit along with the resolution, and Modica responded that he’s not familiar enough with such processes to know the answer to that.

Schmitt asked whether the tax break would be on the total value of the property or only on the value of the improvements, saying there would be a significant difference in figures. He has indicated some concern about how tax incentives for preservation might impact other taxpayers in town.

Assistant Solicitor Peter Squires said it will be up to the council to decide whether a tax bill break anywhere from 5 percent to 20 percent is on the total amount of value for the property or just the value of the improvement. He said this change would basically change authority on historic structures from the state to the local Historic District Commission.

Schmitt asked how many months the ordinance would provide for a demolition delay, and Modica responded that it would likely be in the range of three to six months.

Mayor Jeff Mutter emphasized that the council will ultimately have the say on how the ordinances are crafted.

“There is nothing being decided here,” he said. “There is not an amount for the tax credit, there is no time for the demolition delay.”

Schmitt said he understands that, but noted that the language of Cumberland’s proposal already appears more restrictive than other similar ordinances in place around the state.

The council passed the resolution with some minor changes proposed by Schmitt, but with the understanding that nothing about the ordinances is yet finalized.