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Changes presented to Town Board to fortify landmark preservation code

Dozens of “non-contributing” properties located within historic districts in Southold could soon be subject to review by the town’s Historic Preservation Commission, under a new proposal introduced this week.

At Tuesday’s Town Board work session, HPC chair Ted Webb and member Robert Harper presented a series of recommended changes that would fortify the town’s landmark preservation code. Their changes, Mr. Webb said, would address “serious flaws” in the local law which, left unaddressed, could cause “irreparable damage” to the character of historic districts in Southold Town.

There are two historic districts that fall under the purview of the HPC: Orient Village, established in 1976, and Southold’s historic district, established in 1996.

The East Marion historic district, formed in 2019, is purely honorific and not subject to HPC regulations.

A “non-contributing” structure, Mr. Harper explained, could be a ranch-style home constructed in the 1970s on a block surrounded by homes that date to the 1800s. “It’s not within the period of significance” of the overall historic district, he said, despite being located within its boundaries.

Of the 182 properties in Orient’s historic district, Mr. Harper said, 55 are considered non-contributing — and are thus exempt from HPC review of alterations and other changes. The smaller historic district of Southold includes approximately 19 non-contributing properties.

Town attorney Bill Duffy said Southold’s code is unique in that it doesn’t address the entire historic district, just the list of “contributing” properties within it. “That complicates things a little bit more,” he said.

Mr. Harper argued that those properties are crucial to address. “What your neighbor does affects everyone’s property values,” he said. “We’re seeing more and more people who are coming in and they want to build something on a vacant lot or take a house that’s already here and do something that may be inappropriate.”

In addition to recommending that non-contributing properties be subject to HPC review, Mr. Harper also noted that the code does not address new construction within historic districts with regard to “certificates of appropriateness” issued by the HPC. While the current code does make reference to new construction, it lacks any enforceable language, Mr. Harper said, noting that simple updates could address the issue.

In addition, although the HPC can make rulings on demolitions in the two historic districts, it doesn’t necessarily have a say about what replaces it. Mr. Duffy did note that demolitions can be denied or approved with conditions that could address guidelines for the new structure.

“We’re already seeing examples of how we’re losing historic treasures” due to issues in the code, Mr. Harper said, adding that changes to community character can impact property values, which are typically higher within the designated historic district. 

Officials urged commission members to get input from affected community members before moving forward with code changes for the board to consider. It would eventually require a public hearing before the Town Board, which would ultimately vote on a code change.

“There is a certain paradox here, because if you have a vacant piece of property, the value of the property is enhanced because of where it’s located. Yet at the same time, someone could buy it and ultimately build something that undermines the very reason the lot was worth more to begin with,” said Supervisor Scott Russell.

Mr. Harper stressed the importance of preservation. “People are buying here because it’s a beautiful place … What we have here now is because somebody before us cared,” he said.