By Bonnie Adams, Managing Editor
Northborough – Now that the news has broken that the owners of the White Cliffs estate have applied for a demolition permit, residents and those who have enjoyed attending functions there have taken to social media to express their dismay. Joining them in expressing frustration is the Historical Commission who has been trying, Normand Corbin, the commission’s chair, said to try to find a way to prevent the historic manse from coming down.
Seven months ago the LaCava family decided to close the business they had run there for nearly 30 years and put the 6.5 acre property, which includes the 18,000-square-foot mansion, on the market for $2 million.
White Cliffs was built in 1886 as a “summer home” for Daniel Wesson and his wife, Cynthia, who was a native of Northborough, at an estimated cost of $300,000. Wesson was one half of one of the most successful firearms companies in the world, Smith and Wesson.
The mansion has 32 rooms, 17 of which have fireplaces. Throughout the facility there are hand-painted ceiling panels, crystal chandeliers, dark mahogany woodwork and stained glass windows.
The Wessons owned White Cliffs until 1906, when they died within two weeks of each other. The mansion was left to their children who owned it until 1910. The estate had several other owners until being bought by the LaCava family in 1985.
The building has been closed since its last function was held in mid-December.
According to Michael Durkin, a Realtor with LAER Realty Partners, who is representing the current owners, the LaCava family, the decision to apply for a demolition permit was not an easy one.
“A lot of people have had ideas on what to do with it,” he said. “But there not have been any serious buyers who have come forward.”
Corbin noted that he and the other members have been frustrated by “misinformation” about what the process is for applying for the permit, and how it is actually approved and then utilized.
There is also a lot of confusion about the role of the Commission itself, he said, which is comprised of volunteers who are appointed by the Board of Selectmen.
Now that the LaCavas have applied for a permit, the next step will be a public hearing to be held by the Historical Commission. According to the town’s demolition delay bylaw, there is a 180 “wait period” between when an application is applied for and when it is granted. The public hearing is held, Corbin said, to determine if the building should remain on the demolition delay by determining if the building is architecturally or historically significant. Ultimately the decision is made by Building Inspector to issue the permit or not.
Many times, a building is determined to not be historically significant and the permit is granted, well before the 180 days pass.
Conversely, if the 180 day period is reached to its completion, “it doesn’t mean that the wrecking ball automatically starts swinging on day 181,” Corbin said.
“In many instances the request for the permit is a strategic decision by the owner to start the 180 day delay clock as soon as possible. They want to have this as an option, not necessarily as the goal.”
Durkin agreed with this sentiment.
The family, Durkin said, hopes that by asking for the demolition permit, the process will move forward. A serious buyer might be motivated to step up, he said. If not, then taking down the building will help make the land more attractive to developers.
“It would be a step towards preparing for the future,” he said.
Over the past two months, the Commission has been working with the Massachusetts Historical Commission (MHC) to determine if the property meets their criteria for a Preservation Restriction (PR). A PR is a legal means to provide a high level of long term protection to significant historic properties, according to the MHC. It is a legal agreement between a property owner and a qualified restriction holding organization. Buildings that have PRs on them are required to ensure that all elements that qualified them for a PR continue to have those elements.
The building must in essence be preserved as is; no changes can be made.
If a PR was granted, then a measure could then be presented to the voters to approve Community Preservation Act (CPA) funds that could be made available to the owners that would offset any difference in the sale price of the home because of the PR.
“Our goal is to have the state okay a Preservation Restriction so we can encourage a new owner/buyer to take advantage of possible CPA funds,” Corbin said.
But just because a building gains a PR status, it is not necessarily safe from being demolished because only an owner can apply to actually then have the PR attached to a property, he stressed, not town officials.
Unfortunately, he said, the MHC judged that White Cliffs does not qualify for a PR at this time because of the renovations that were made on it during the 1960s.
The Commission does not agree with that decision; therefore it is working with a preservationist to formally request that the MHC reconsider its decision.
“But it will take time to prepare the necessary paperwork,” he said.
Durkin said the family has hoped that someone would come forward who would want to purchase the property and preserve the mansion.
“But that’s not the only expense,” he said, of the $2 million price tag.
“Deferred maintenance costs,” such as a new sprinkler system, installing an elevator and other necessary repairs to bring the building up to code could be another $2-3 million.
It is their wish; Corbin said of the Historical Commission, that White Cliffs be saved.
“But we can’t do it alone,” he said. “We need volunteers to help us. We need less ‘someone should do ’ and more ‘I will do ’”.
“The Save the White Cliffs Facebook page has been a fantastic way to keep the community updated,” he added. “But now I’d like the Facebook participants to form a group to help current owners and Realtors look for a potential buyer.”
The date and time for the public hearing will be held within the next three weeks, Corbin said. Details will be released once a room large enough to accommodate the expected large crowd is able to be booked.