The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, August 27, 2010

Historic District celebrates 40 years

Carlisle's Historic District includes many old structures in and around the Town Center.

Even if you don’t live in the Town Center, as a Carlisle resident you have a stake in preserving the buildings that “give Carlisle the character of an early 19th century village, the charm and peacefulness of which appeal to the townspeople and those who choose to move here.” Such was the decision of the 1969 Town Meeting that established the Carlisle Historic District. Massachusetts general law 40C prevents visible changes to structures within a designated historic district unless reviewed by the local Historical Commission.

Massachusetts was among the first states to recognize a communal value to historic property and to provide mechanisms to prevent an owner from performing alterations deemed detrimental. GL 40C notes the desire “to promote the educational, cultural, economic and general welfare of the public through the preservation and protection of the distinctive characteristics of buildings and places significant in the history of the commonwealth and its cities and towns.”

Establishment of District

According to Wilkins’ Carlisle Its History and Heritage, the study committee that recommended the district in 1969 noted 26 houses that were within 1,200 feet of the rotary and visible from public ways. Of these, six dated before 1800, and another 19 were built pre-1850. The committee feared that “new owners . . . could, through improper planning and lack of good taste, spoil the appearance of the center for the townspeople in general and the neighboring owners in particular.” It recommended the establishment of the District and the appointment of a Historical Commission to oversee it. Town Meeting approved the recommendations by a 2/3 vote. (See also district definition, page 6.)

How did the outlines of the Carlisle district become a jagged form that honors no property lines (see map)? This is a mystery that current Historical Commission chair Sylvia Sillers could not solve.

While the 40C law is intended to rein in misguided destruction or renovation, some see it as an infringement on property rights. Sillers, a homeowner within the district, recognizes the burdens. “Other people don’t have to pay $30 and submit an application every time they paint a door a different color or put a different fence up,” she says. “We (commission members) try to be kind and friendly to those who have to put up with us.”

Commission reviews, offers advice

The Historical Commission is appointed by the Selectmen, and is not to be confused with the Historical Society, which is a private preservationist organization. Current commission members, in addition to Sillers, include Peggy Hilton, Nathan Brown (representing the Planning Board, and architects Geoffrey Freeman and Neil Emmer. Alternates are Jack O’Connor and Duncan Grant.

The commission’s primary responsibility is to rule on any proposed changes within the Historic District. An application must be filed at Town Hall, after which one or more public hearings will be scheduled. The applicant must appear at the hearings to present plans. The commission can then reject an application or issue one of three certificates; a certificate of appropriateness, a certificate of non-applicability, or a certificate of hardship where the proposed change “will not result in a substantial detriment to the public welfare” but compliance would be unreasonably burdensome. The commission maintains its own rules and regulations which are available at Town Hall and will soon be on the town website. Violations can be punished with fines and the commission has recourse to state courts.

In addition to overseeing the Historic District, the commission undertakes “advisory responsibilities for the historical resources of the whole town” according to the rules and regulations. Examples would include recommendations for renovation of the Bog House and Highland Building, neither of which is within the Historic District. The Selectmen or other boards can request that the Historical Commission review applications for Community Preservation Act (CPA) historic preservation funds.

Recent projects show pros, cons

The library restoration is one project that went through the commission before work started. Library Director Angela Mollet says there were few issues because the library committee was already dedicated to maintaining the historic nature of the building, and had chosen an architect with vast experience in preservation. “We enjoyed working on their project,” says Sillers. “It’s so nice to see something done really well.” Mollet notes that an issue with being in the Historic District comes when smaller projects come up: for example, they would like to move a cat sculpture in the front yard but must first come before the commission. In the future, the library anticipates adding a new sign that will likely require several hearings.

A barn on Bedford Road that was approved for stabilization is now in non-compliance because the owner was unable to complete the work in the designated time. Sillers said she has had many conversations with the owner and the matter has been referred to Building Commissioner John Luther. In a phone conversation, Luther said that the owner “intends to continue remodeling at some point” and that in the meantime, “There’s nothing much I can do unless there’s significant deterioration” and the site becomes a safety issue. “This has worried us for three years,” says Sillers. “There’s not a lot we can do. It’s a shame.”

Survey of town history

soon to be on web

The commission recently completed a survey of historic properties throughout Carlisle using CPA funds approved at Town Meeting. Sillers explains that the survey documents the background for each historic property, listing the families who lived there and the changes in architecture over time. Included are many photos. The survey was required in order to apply for state grants and aid.

The information will be a resource for anyone wishing to research their own property or neighborhood. Sillers suggests looking for the survey information under the Mass Historical Commission MACRIS database where it will appear within the next months. (http://

Sillers thanks the two professional surveyors, Anne Forbes and Gretchen Schuler. “It’s very, very well done,” she says. “For $20,000 we got more than our money’s worth.” Eventually the four CDs of information will be made available to the public at the library and Town Hall. Mollet says that each year several requests are made for historic information and the availability of the survey “will help us keep from reinventing the wheel.” She also notes that it would have been useful for the library project, which required research into past phases of renovation for the building.

For 40 years, homeowners in the Historic District have submitted to an extra layer of rules and processes. “It’s not easy,” Sillers admits. So next time you see a neighbor with a home in the district, thank them for their on-going stewardship of Carlisle’s history. ∆

© 2010 The Carlisle Mosquito