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SOUTHAMPTON — Erin Dufresne, an East Street resident, wanted to know if there were any restrictions on tree cutting in her neighborhood, a state and federal historic district. She went to a Planning Board meeting, since her road is also designated a scenic road.

“This is where I started with my questioning,” Dufresne said. “The first 10 feet of trees are supposed to be scenic shade trees on a scenic road.”

Dufresne spent $1,700 to have tree work done on her property. Highway Department employees then came around and cut trees in the neighborhood she thought were protected under the scenic road designation. Alarmed by the damage to the character of the road, Dufresne attended a Historical Commission meeting on April 16 to ask whether trees were protected in a historic district.

Not all historic districts are the same. Dufresne learned that federal and state historic districts do not impose restrictions on what happens to trees and structures. Only local historic districts can restrict options for new buildings and landscaping.

“Is there any restriction on what I can do there to fix up [and] renovate … my house?” said Robert Kozub, chair of the Historical Commission. “My response to her was … in order for there to be any restrictions like that it has to be a local historic district.”

Discussion revealed the trees are protected on East Street but the elegant look of the past is not. A new house is under construction on the street. Dufresne voiced concerns the new house won’t fit well with the old houses in the district — but there is no mechanism or authority to put restrictions on the new structure. Residents of East Street are a little nervous.

“The neighbors in the area here … we don’t know what this is going to look like,” Dufresne said. “But we’re pretty sure it’s not going to look like it goes in that neighborhood.”

According to communitypreservation.org, which offers detailed information on historic districts, a local district not only preserves and protects the antique structures, it also promotes preservation and improvements to the settings where old buildings stand. Historic districts exist cheek to jowl with more contemporary structures. One benefit of a local historic district is to promote innovative designs for new construction that help maintain visual coherence between a historic district and the surrounding areas.

Dufresne knew there was a past effort to establish a local historic district on East Street, but that effort failed. Kozub said, “It is a complex process.” But a local historic district would offer protections for the character of East Street Dufresne is hoping for.

Dufresne may have been most interested in protecting the neighborhood from a garish building project. Local historic districts help preserve a visual sense of the past, increasingly hard to find in New England, but are only allowed review of architectural details visible from the street. A town bylaw creating a local historic district may ban certain colors for exterior paint, visible air conditioning units, heat exchangers, storm windows and doors and skylights.

Those and other signs of modern life, however, may be allowed under a local bylaw.

Establishing a local historical district offers protection even from the commonwealth. Historic neighborhoods can be marred by inappropriate state projects. Local historic districts are automatically listed on the State Register of Historic Places. Neighborhoods on that list have some protections from projects that are funded, licensed, or assisted by the commonwealth. Properties owned by municipalities or nonprofits also become eligible for grants from the Massachusetts Preservation Projects Fund, when available.
Historical Commission member Charlie Fisher commented the town already has a historical district on High Street. Dufresne clarified that while there are commercial businesses in the East Street area, they shouldn’t be included in a historic district. Only the residential properties with vacant land available for a project need the protections against development.

Kozub said the process of setting up a historic district begins with delineating the boundaries of the district. A next step is to create an authority, a historic district committee, to make decisions related to it. Votes at Town Meeting would be necessary. Kozub didn’t see a favorable vote at Town Meeting, but acknowledged it would protect the neighborhood.

“Once you establish that, then that authority can set any parameters it so wishes to restrict what goes on in that district,” Kozub said.

Dufresne, having revealed the town’s historic districts currently offer no protections for the historic properties they encompass, realized that was the source of her confusion. Her prior research had revealed that five out of six proposals for historic districts were authorized in town … but to what benefit? The existing districts do not protect the historic nature of the neighborhoods.
“Properties A, B, C, E and F are all approved historic sites” in town, Dufresne said. “That’s why I had no idea that there were no rules with this thing going up next to us. So many of us pass those signs and think, oh, I’m in a historic district.”

Dufresne, more informed about historic designations, concluded that more research was necessary before she takes a next step to protect her neighborhood.

dpruyne@thereminder.com | + posts