A modified plan for proposed alterations of an historic home and new construction on Meadow Street in Florence was approved at a recent meeting of the Northampton Conservation Commission.
The new version of the project calls for no changes in the existing house at 61 Meadow St. and the construction of only one single-family home on the lot, instead of two houses as builder James Harrity had earlier proposed, according to Bruce Young of the city planning department.
That earlier proposal had drawn some criticism from neighbors and preservationists at a meeting of the Northampton Historical Commission. That commission took no action on the plan because members said it had no jurisdiction. (See earlier story below)
Between the time of the Historical Commission meeting and that of the Conservation Commission, Harrity worked out changes in his plan in consultation with city officials, according to Young.
The final proposal calls for no structural changes to the existing home and attached garage, nor will the shed on the property be disturbed, said Young.
However, Harrity will have enough space on the site to build one new two-story home.
The commission also stipulated that Harrity create a “rain garden” or holding area on the site to absorb water that now drains into the nearby Mill River during storms. Also, he was required to place large boulders at the rear of the property so that a barrier would be created between that site and the adjacent wetlands.
Young said that Harrity also was urged to take steps so that the design of the new structure on the site fits in with the architecture of the existing building and with the neighborhood as a whole.
Meadow Street in Florence
History versus Development;
Another Small Battle Joined
By Edward Shanahan
Residents concerned about possible alterations to what they regard as an historic house at 61 Meadow St. in Florence came up empty the other night at a meeting of the Northampton Historical Commission.
At a public hearing, Chris Kennedy, commission chairman, said the board does not have any authority to act in the matter because any changes proposed by the developer would involve only partial demolition.
“We cannot not stop the project, “ Kennedy said. “We have no legal authority. We have no official power to stop this.”
The issue of the Meadow Street property apparently caught the other commissioners by surprise, as none of them seemed aware that some kind of changes were being planned for the red frame house, attached garage and shed nestled next to the floodplain to its north.
According to Kennedy, the developer, Jim Harrity of Northampton, plans to take down a section of the home’s garage and create building lots for two new homes on the site, which is located on the north side of Meadow Street, just east of the bridge over the Mill River.
Kennedy said that under the city’s new “demolition review” ordinance, the commission can act only if total demolition is proposed and even then can only delay such demolition for a year, as it attempts to negotiate concessions from a developer to protect the historical and cultural features of a structure.
The city ordinance on ‘demolition delay’ came in the wake of a series of notable cases in recent years – such as the demolition of a home on Barrett Place - where historic buildings in the city were torn down because the city lacked legal authority to stop the destruction.
Reached for his comments, Harrity told downstreet.net that his plans call for taking down the two-bay garage (seen in the foreground in photo at right), which was not part of the original house, and possibly demolishing the section connecting the garage to the house. As a result, the house, which he said he admires, would be returned close to its original appearance.
This would create space for building lots on which he would construct two single-family, two-story structures, each measuring 32 by 32 feet, which would be consistent with zoning restrictions on the property. He said the new houses would be attractive, have “nice detail” and “add value” to the neighborhood.
According to Carolyn Misch of the city’s Department of Planning and Development, Harrity has an option to buy the Meadow Street property, but the sale has not become final.
Meanwhile, the city Building Commissioner’s office said that no application has yet been filed for a building permit to enable Harrity to go forward with his plans.
Although Harrity was not present at the meeting, Kennedy said that it was his understanding the 61 Meadow St. house was built in 1845 and “has historic significance” even though aspects of it have been altered over the years. “It is one the earliest houses on Meadow Street,” he said, and “has a place in Florence and in the structure of the community.”
Harrity, who has been involved in a series of contentious developments, said: “You can’t win.” He said his plans for Meadow Street are in accord with “infill development” that is part of the city’s comprehensive plan to discourage building in outlying areas.
“I have no intention of doing anything” to harm “the integrity” of “that beautiful house,” he said.
Harrity said he was surprised that there was concern over his plans. “This is where I’m a little puzzled, what is the issue specifically?”
The house had been on the market for “a very long time,” he said, and what he intends to do is allowed by zoning. “No one can say to me what the issue is.”
Records at the assessors’ office indicate the house was built as early as 1810, but that date is refuted by Steve Strimer, a local historian of older Florence houses. He puts the home’s date between 1854 and 1863, although he and others are organizing new efforts to do more research on the subject.
At the hearing, Kimball Howes, a member of the commission, said he could state “categorically” from his personal experience that the house today is as it was in the mid-1930s.
Howes echoed Kennedy’s position that the commission’s only role might be to “cajole” the developer to go easy on changing the basic nature of the house.
“The only strategy is to talk to the guy,” Howes said. “We have no leverage whatsoever. I’m suggesting if anyone knows him, talk him out of it.”
The subsequent public hearing will be held April 12 by the Conservation Commission to consider issues relating to the proximity of the proposed project to the nearby floodplain (seen at the left) and the impact of the Mill River on the property.
Misch at the planning board said that no public hearing is required by that board, because it is Building Commissioner Anthony Patillo who determines if the two new structures proposed for the site meet the requirements of the zoning.
At the Historical Commission meeting a good deal of discussion was directed at the fact that the demolition review ordinance was watered down so that only total demolition proposals came within the jurisdiction of the commission.
Norman Winston said that “everyone here is forgetting … we took the compromise we could get,” by agreeing to abandon protection for historic buildings that are partially demolished as opposed to those slated for total clearance. “This is better than nothing.”
As the discussion continued, it appeared members of the commission favored trying to go back to the City Council to “strengthen” provisions in the “demolition review” ordinance to protect historic buildings that are threatened with partial rather than only total destruction. (Posted 3/28/07)
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