Guest Column: Clarifying the historic district proposal

09/14/2014 10:00 AM |
A six-mile stretch of Main Road could be listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The corridor includes Aquebogue’s Old Steeple Church, built in 1862 and designed by a farmer with no architectural experience, as well as Aquebogue Cemetery, which dates back to 1755 and contains the graves of numerous Revolutionary War soldiers. (Credit: Andrew Lepre)

A six-mile stretch of Main Road could be listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The corridor includes Aquebogue’s Old Steeple Church, built in 1862 and designed by a farmer with no architectural experience, as well as Aquebogue Cemetery, which dates back to 1755 and contains the graves of numerous Revolutionary War soldiers. (Credit: Andrew Lepre)

The Riverhead and Southold landmarks preservation commissions have nominated the six miles of Main Road running through the hamlets of Aquebogue, Jamesport and Laurel to the National Register of Historic Places. This designation will open up access to incentives that might help preserve some of the many historic structures along this stretch of rural highway that serves as the gateway to the North Fork. 

There has been considerable confusion about our efforts. Some think that this is a local historic district, which would have rules and regulations. Both towns already have several such districts. However, for the Main Road corridor we are proposing something with no restrictions — namely, a National Register historic district.

Although the two types of districts sound similar, the National Register historic district is, in fact, totally different. A National Register designation brings recognition and access to various types of tax credits — but no restrictions, no regulations and no reporting requirements for property owners.

Here are the three most common misunderstandings:

• Will a National Register historic district bring us more rules, restrictions and requirements?

No. The assumption that it will is based on a lack of understanding of the distinction between local historic districts, which do bring restrictions, and National Register historic districts, which do not. Creation of a National Register historic district will bring no constraints to the rights of property owners, which we strongly support.

• Will creation of a National Register historic district eventually lead to more restrictions?

No. In both Riverhead and Southold, only the town boards can create the kind of local historic districts that do have restrictions. The town boards are required to hold public hearings and are very unlikely to create any local districts unless there is strong support from property owners. The existence of a National Register historic district changes nothing. Moreover, it is very clear in both town codes that any new National Register historic districts are not subject to automatic conversion to local districts.

• Will a National Register historic district bring additional review whenever state permits are required?

No. Under decades-old state and federal laws, all applications for state permits, such as for road cuts or work near wetlands, are already sent to the State Historic Preservation Office for review. Actual listing on the National Register will make no difference in this process.

We believe that listing Main Road on the National Register will bring many benefits to property owners along the historic roadway — and to the community in general. Most significant is access to tax credits available to owners of income-producing historic properties, such as businesses, rental homes and agricultural operations, for major restoration projects. This could be an important tool to save or restore some of the rundown and dilapidated structures along Main Road.

In addition, virtually all of the approximately 100 owner-occupied homes in the Riverhead part of the district built before 1964 will qualify for a special 20 percent state tax credit that can be used for a wide range of home repair projects, such as new asphalt roofs or replacement boilers, as long as the project is at least $5,000 in total, 5 percent of the work is exterior and the project does not damage the historic aspect of the house.

Many types of retail businesses, even ones not in historic buildings, will benefit from the added prestige of being located in a National Register historic district. Churches and other nonprofits will benefit because National Register designation can be an important tool in attaining grants. Realtors will use the National Register designation as an appealing enticement to prospective buyers. Contractors will benefit from the added work the tax credits can bring.

We have been asked why we don’t simply list the most historic structures on the register and leave everyone else out. Unfortunately, this approach is not practical. First of all, listing a single structure is laborious and time-consuming. Moreover, while a few dozen structures might qualify individually, by creating a district we can pre-qualify a few hundred structures for National Register benefits.

We know that not everyone will benefit directly, but even those with non-historic properties will benefit indirectly from incentives that will help their friends and neighbors preserve this incredible historic resource. And, most importantly, no one will be burdened by any new restrictions, since the National Register designation is purely an honorary one.

If you have more questions, please feel free to contact us directly. It is important that everyone understand the reality of what we are proposing.

Richard Wines is the chairman of the Riverhead Landmarks Preservation Commission. He can be reached at [email protected]. James Grathwohl is the chairman of the Southold Landmarks Preservation Commission. He can be reached at [email protected].

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