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Our Town with William Kelly: Town looks to ease zoning rules for landmarked buildings

Property owners may soon find it easier to win town approval of their plans to renovate or expand houses or buildings that are landmarked.

The town is developing zoning incentives intended to ease some zoning rules for landmarked structures. The idea is to boost the appeal of the town landmarks program and strengthen historic preservation.

“The point is to provide incentives and encouragement for property owners with buildings that are worthy of being landmarked,” Zoning Manager Paul Castro told the Planning and Zoning Commission Tuesday.

The town has offered a zoning waiver for landmarked structures since 2007. But Castro said it has rarely been used and isn’t considered successful.

The waiver process has been slow – slower than seeking a zoning variance – and didn’t let most owners accomplish what they wanted to do with their homes, he said.

In many cases, older houses or buildings do not conform to current zoning rules that were adopted later. When major renovations of those structures occur, they trigger requirements for zoning variances that must be approved by the Town Council. The review process can be expensive and time-consuming.

The zoning staff, under the direction of the council, drafted an updated ordinance that could give owners of landmarked buildings some relief from rules for side and rear yard setbacks, landscape open space and maximum lot coverage.

Under the new ordinance, the owners would apply for a “dimensional waiver” that would be granted by the Landmarks Preservation Commission if certain conditions in the code are met.

The new or renovated structure could not be any closer to the side or rear property line than the existing landmark building or structure.

It also could be no taller than one story and could come no closer than 5 feet from the side or rear property line. Those conditions are intended to protect the neighbor’s privacy, Castro said.

The waiver on the maximum lot coverage limit could be applied to additions that meet the above-described setback guidelines, or to one- or two-story “in-fill” additions within an interior courtyard, veranda or patio, Castro said.

The proposed landscape open space waiver could not exceed 3 percent of the minimum required within the applicable zoning district. For example, if the landmarked property is within a zoning district that requires at least 45 percent of the lot to be landscape open space, then the waiver would reduce that open-space minimum to as low as 42 percent, Castro said.

Commissioners appeared to be in favor of recommending that the council adopt the ordinance. But they wanted some changes first.

Commissioner Jorge Sanchez said he would like to see the ordinance provide more flexibility to the landmarks commission when it grants the waivers.

The commission asked Castro to take another look at the historic “sea streets” – Seabreeze, Seaview, Seaspray avenues – where existing buildings are sometimes less than 5 feet from neighboring properties and amend the waiver conditions to allow more setback flexibility in that area.

“We had 15 years with a set of incentives that didn’t work,” Zoning Chairman Michael Ainslie said. “Let’s take one more swing at this before we take a vote and look at the ‘sea streets’ and see if we can come up with more incentives.”

Castro said he would be back with the revisions in September or October. But he said it will be important to take the neighbors’ concerns into account.

“I think if you’re going to let [the applicants] build right up to the property line, we’re going to need the neighbors’ consent,” Castro said.

Since the program began in 1979, the town has designated 340 landmarks, according to landmarks consultants Emily Stillings and Janet Murphy. That’s only a fraction of what preservationists would like to achieve. One obstacle, landmarks commissioners have said, is the perception among some property owners that landmark status prevents a property from being updated or expanded. Commissioners say that perception is wrong.

Town officials say too many historically and architecturally significant buildings are being lost to demolition or have been altered to the point where they have lost much of their integrity. A historic site survey early this year found that 204 “significant” structures in town have been demolished or significantly altered since 2004.

The survey, which focused on structures built before 1980 and visible from the public right of way, recorded 1,721 “potential historical resources” remaining on the island.