Friday, March 14, 2003
The Carlisle Historical Commission: the quiet town board
Suppose you just bought an historic house in Carlisle center and decided to paint it light blue, just like your grandmother's Victorian in New Hampshire. Suppose that, after the paint dried, you learned that you should have applied for a Certificate of Appropriateness before you even visited the paint store. A what?
That's where the Carlisle Historical Commission comes in. Operating under Chapter 40C of the Massachusetts General Laws (The Historic Districts Act) and the Carlisle bylaws, and charged by the state with protecting and preserving historical resources in the town, the commission also serves as the regulatory design review commission within the Carlisle Historic District (see map). It oversees changes in design, color or material in the historical district. When historical district property owners contemplate projects that involve more than routine maintenance and will result in visible changes to the property, they must announce their plans to the commission and, if necessary, apply for a Certificate of Appropriateness. Simply put, any visual changes to a property that will be visible from the public pathways require a Certificate of Appropriateness.
Unpredictable workload impacts budget
Approved by Town Meeting in 1967, the Carlisle Historical Commission remains one of the least visible boards in town. Often confused with the Carlisle Historical Society, with which it has no connection, the commission struggles with a growing, changing town, an inadequate budget, public misperception of its mission, and an unpredictable workload from year to year. There were three applications in 2001 and ten in 2002. The town's level-budget requirement has already impacted the commission, since there are no funds remaining in FY03 for the clerk's work in processing applications. But, "we're a regulatory board and we must file legally," Kitrosser points out. The board plans to raise its application fees.
The state defines the composition of the historical commission, specifying that the members include two architects, a representative from the town planning board, and two members without designation. One or more of these members should be residents of the historic district, if possible. In addition to commission chair Mary Ann Kitrosser, who has served on the commission for ten years, commission members are Alan (Chip) Dewing, an architect with twenty years of service on the board; architect Barry Ganek, a commissioner for eight years; and liaison from the planning board Louise Hara. Madge Nickerson is currently an alternate member. The newest members, both of whom reside within the district, are Peggy Hilton, Carlisle's former librarian, and attorney David Chaffin who joined recently as an alternate member. Francene Amari-Faulkner is the commission's clerk.
With the death in January of long-term member James C. Davis, Jr., the commission lost one of its most valuable connections to Carlisle's past. A commissioner for more than twenty years, Davis "could see two sides of anything," recalls Kitrosser, "always with preservation in mind." His sense of history and knowledge of historic homes was invaluable and his loss is deeply felt.
Hilton's recent arrival on the board helps fill the historical gap left by Davis. Hilton and her husband Bob, who has served on the historical commission in the past, have lived in the center for 35 years in a Blaisdell house built in the 1820s. Both share "a real interest in old houses." She worked in the center, too, for 23 years as the town's librarian. "I've always had an interest in the center," she says. "I've seen a lot of history take place here." About her new position on the board, Hilton notes, "I think it's valuable for the commission to have someone with an historical perspective serving on the board."
What the commission does
The commission meets monthly to review applications and pursue an ambitious agenda. Charged with protecting and preserving Carlisle's historic resources, the commission's purview is all historic structures in town, but its work is primarily in the historic district. Kitrosser explains: "Town-wide, we're involved in historic preservation planning for houses and buildings 100 years and older. This includes not only houses but also barns, bridges and cemeteries. We're an advisory board for the selectmen, making suggestions and planning for preservation." But within the historic district, the commission is a regulatory design board. "We work with owners to allow appropriate changes and to ensure that the improvements to the buildings are compatible with the historic nature of the settings. We're interested in the aesthetic part," she says, "especially those parts of the house and property open to public view." This would include painting, roofing, permanent furnishings, driveways, walkways, lighting and signs. Adds Hilton, "Our challenge is to manage growth, and guide and encourage good design."
Commission member Barry Ganek brings his architect's eye to proposed projects. "No particular period is represented in the district," he observes. "There are many years of development and different styles across time lines." Houses in the center were built in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and, according to the 1967 study committee that recommended establishing the historic district, "give Carlisle the character of an early 19th-century village." Ganek and fellow architect Chip Dewing offer their professional expertise to district residents who come before the board, serving as an invaluable architectural resource for property owners grappling with materials decisions and those innumerable details of a building that affect its character. Dewing adds, "Changes are all about the detailsthe roof, the mailbox, the color. The aggregate is what it's about."
How do the property owner and the historical commission begin a dialogue? According to Kitrosser, the building inspector will know when a project is planned and will advise the owner to contact the commission. Area realtors also are aware that the historic district is a special place and alert new buyers that it is governed by a set of guidelines. Also, an annual letter to district residents from the commission reminds them of their responsibility to contact the board prior to making changes to their property. Ganek said, "We're making a strong effort to make all residents of the historic district aware of the laws and the reasons for the commission's work."
Once contact has been made, a board member explains the process of certification to the owner and if necessary, the owner files an application. In situations where the property owner has gone ahead and made changes (as in our hypothetical case of the blue- painted house) without contacting the commission, the owner is asked to file retroactively as though the change had not been made. The commission then discusses whether or not to grant a Certificate of Appropriateness as though the owner had filed when required. If the property owner refuses to contact the commission or ignores its requests to do so, he is in violation and additional enforcement measures are necessaryranging from a friendly letter, a stop-work order, or ultimately, a not-friendly claim in Superior Court.
As Carlisleans know, the historic district is populated by more than homes. The town's major offices, private businesses and churches reside here too, contributing to the town's historic character, and they too are under the aegis of the historical commission. During the 30-plus years of the historical commission's life, changes have been made to nearly every building in the district, including the First Religious Society. "The major municipal projects are done," proclaims Chip Dewing, who was involved as an architect in renovating of the Gleason Library and the First Religious Society. "Now the commission is a maintenance board, an overseer of secondary changes rather than major ones."
Looking to the future
While those secondary changes to district homes and business will continue to keep submissions flowing to the historic district commission, there are unprecedented challenges facing its members in the short term. "Pedestrian safety is a concern," says Kitrosser, "in light of the increased traffic in the center. We're working on creating appropriate footpaths in various parts of the historic district to make it safer for residents." In January, the historical commission issued a Certificate of Appropriateness requested by the pedestrian and bike safety advisory committee for the construction of a footpath extending from the post office to the ATM machine.
Long-term goals include bringing up to date a town-wide historic survey of houses more than 100 years old requested by the Massachusetts Historical Commission, and working with the Community Preservation Act Committee to determine how the 10% of funds earmarked for historic preservation might be spent.
The next time you drive through Carlisle center, take an appreciative look at this very special place, "emblematic of a New England village." That it has been lovingly and painstakingly preserved is a credit to the owners who live there, but also to the historical commissioners who work hard for its preservation. As Peggy Hilton observes, "We want to keep our property in trust for the next owners." All town residents are the beneficiaries of that trust.
© 2003 The