By Barbara Taormina
A revised version of the city’s proposed Demolition Delay Ordinance has raised questions and created confusion about the process meant to preserve Malden’s historical cityscapes.
A few weeks ago, the Ordinance Committee voted to recommend that the City Council approve a Demolition Delay Ordinance proposed by the city’s Historical Commission. The new ordinance was aimed at preserving the city’s historically significant buildings by imposing a 12-month delay on demolition permits for buildings the Historical Commission determined should be preserved. Architectural features, building styles and ties to the city’s economic, political and social history are among the reasons the Historical Commission may delay a permit to tear down a building. The one-year demolition delay is meant to give city officials and property owners time to explore alternative options that will preserve and rehabilitate historically important buildings and homes.
The original ordinance closely mirrored the Massachusetts Historical Commission’s model for a demolition delay bylaw and was very similar to delay ordinances and bylaws adopted by dozens of cities and towns throughout the state. But Building Commissioner Nelson Miller told Ordinance Committee members there were problems with the proposed regulations, and he asked for some time to review the ordinance and suggest revisions.
What’s now on the table is the proposed Demolition and Alteration Delay Ordinance, a hot mess of restrictions, requirements and timetables that go much further than the original version. The ordinance covers any buildings listed on or located in an area listed on the National Register of Historic Places. But age is also a factor. Members of the Historical Commission believe that any building that is more than 50 years old should be reviewed to determine if it is significant and should be preserved and protected by the Demolition Delay Ordinance. By that measure, 83 percent of the buildings in Malden could potentially be subject to the restrictions in the new ordinance.
But the biggest change in the revised version of the ordinance is the addition of a delay for building permits for alterations which include any construction or renovation to the exterior of a building that has been targeted for preservation. Owners of buildings and homes that have been identified as historically significant and worth preserving could potentially be subject to a Historical Commission review and a 12-month delay for building permits to install new front doors, rebuild front steps, replace windows, build decks and make other typical home improvements and upgrades.
In many cities and towns, Demolition Delay Ordinances focus on delaying permits to demolish historically significant buildings. Somerville’s delay ordinance does not include restrictions on routine maintenance or the removal or construction of porches, decks, windows or other types of renovations for which Historical Commission approval is not required.
Medford’s demolition delay bylaw does restrict major renovations, such as removing a roof or knocking out walls and changing the architectural features of an historical building. But alterations that do not involve “substantial demolition” are not required to undergo a review by the Historical Commission and are not subject to a permit delay. Medford’s Historical Commission actually encourages appropriate alterations and additions that will satisfy homeowners. It helps keep applications for demolition permits at bay.
In addition to the dramatically expanded scope of the revised version of the ordinance, there are other proposed changes the Ordinance Committee will consider. Most Demolition Delay Ordinances and bylaws require property owners to show plans and permits for reuse of a parcel of land before they receive a permit to raze a historically significant building.
Miller has suggested that requirement is unreasonable and should be eliminated. He also feels it is unreasonable to require property owners to provide explanations and economic data to justify demolitions. Miller has also suggested that a building should be 75 or 80 years old before the Historical Commission begins a review to determine if it is historically significant and worth preserving.