"Hysterical" Historical Commissions: What Do They Do?

In September I was appointed by the Westborough Board of Selectmen to the town's Historical Commission as the newest voting member. But what do Historical Commissions do? They often get a bad rap, labeled as the "hysterical" commission, and are thought to be overly concerned with paint color. But in fact Historical Commissions play an important role in maintaining the places that many of us, especially in Massachusetts, love so much. Think about where you'd like to stroll around, spend your vacation - in the mall, or walking around a historic town center like Salem or Rockport? And imagine if all the houses and apartments in every town were modern, all constructed with the same clean lines and beige vinyl siding. You would get sick of that architecture real quick!

Historical commissions help to preserve buildings and landscapes that make a place unique. They make sure a town is conscious of its historic buildings and landscapes, and that they are factored into the continuing growth of the community. Historical commissions help to preserve the variety of architecture that has developed in a place over time, from small houses to mill buildings to downtown stores. This variety not only gives you something to look at on your vacation, but it also provides people with different places to live and work.

A variety of spaces in different conditions provides a variety of options - for housing you can rent one floor of a triple-decker, a loft in a rehabilitated mill building, or a two-bedroom in a newly-constructed apartment building. If you're a business, you might be looking at a downtown storefront, space in a mill that has been converted to a startup incubator, or space in a 1980s office park at the edge of town. All of those choices have a corresponding level of rent and services, and a town that has all those choices can adequately provide for a wide variety of residents and businesses. Through their regulatory powers, local historical commissions in Massachusetts help towns to retain their historic buildings, giving residents and businesses a choice in where they want to live and work.

Chapter 40, Section 8D of the Massachusetts General Laws allows municipalities in the state to create a historical commission "for the preservation, protection and development of the historical or archeological assets of such city or town." The General Laws provide no strict rules about what commissions must do. Most historical commissions conduct inventories of the towns historic resources, completing forms that provide historical information on properties in town, which are useful when making planning decisions. Historical commissions also undertake "bricks and mortar" conservation work, on historic buildings, monuments, or cemeteries in town. But most importantly, especially in Massachusetts, historical commissions are given the ability to implement a demolition delay when a demolition permit is issued for a historic building.

Demolition delay bylaws vary greatly around the state; some municipalities do not even have one. In general, they allow for a delay of anywhere from 90 days to 18 months. The "trigger" for demolition delay also varies - 50 or 100 years old, constructed before a specific year such as 1900 or 1950, listed on the State or National Register, or included in the state's cultural resources inventory. It is up to towns to pass a demolition delay bylaw, and to decide what works best for their town. Historical commissions can also waive the delay, if they feel that the building in question is no longer historically significant (generally, if it has been greatly altered). The delay provides a pause for the developer and the town, some time to see if there is a way the building can be saved, either by incorporating it into the developers plans, selling the parcel to a new, sympathetic owner, or even moving the building to a new location. Importantly, the decision of the historical commission to impose a delay can be overruled by the town's building inspector if safety is an issue with the building. Unfortunately, in towns undergoing rapid development, demolition delay bylaws often become ineffective, because developers will simply factor the wait time into their plan. In Westborough, the Historical Commission can impose a 180-day delay on buildings constructed before 1950.

The Westborough Historical Commission also has control of signs within a 2500' radius around the town's rotary, which covers much of the downtown commercial area. This area is part of a larger National Register of Historic Places district, and having control of signs within it allows the Historical Commission to better maintain the historic nature of the district. In addition to the town's general sign bylaws, the Historical Commission generally asks for signs that are in keeping with the district's historic nature, in color, size, and type. Anyone creating or altering a sign in this district must submit it to the Historical Commission for approval before they can hang the sign. Signs in this district are some of the Historical Commission's biggest business, as the downtown area has improved greatly over the past few years and a number of new businesses have moved in.

Beyond that, a town's historical commission has few other duties. Education is one of the most important aspects of a historical commission - keeping the public informed about historic buildings and landscapes in town, and potential changes to them. Historical commissions are also advisers to other town boards and departments, making sure that they keep the town's historic features in mind when planning new regulations or approving new developments. Historical commissions play a small but important role in helping to maintain the character cities and towns have developed throughout their history. So the next time you're ready to complain about the "hysterical" commission, think about how much you enjoy Massachusetts' historic cities and towns!

Consider volunteering to help govern your city or town! Most municipalities lack volunteers to staff their boards and commissions. It is often a very small time commitment, generally one but sometimes two meetings a month. Municipalities have a number of different boards for different subjects, so check around and see who has vacancies! You generally don't have to be an expert in the field, just a willing and interested citizen!