By Susan Gonsalves, Contributing Writer
SOUTHBOROUGH – Selectmen recently voted to have town counsel instruct the Historical Commission to stop using certain documents related to Southborough’s demolition delay bylaw. They further instructed the town clerk to remove those materials from the town website.
Following a lengthy discussion at a July 22 Board of Selectmen meeting, Town Counsel Jay Talerman also agreed to meet with Town Administrator Mark Purple and the Historical Commission to discuss what the Commission can and cannot ask of property owners under the bylaw.
The back and forth between the two boards over the last few months focused on property on 15 Main St. According to past selectmen minutes, the Commission is telling property owners that they can’t get a demolition permit unless they first put their property on the market. Selectmen argue that’s something that Town Meeting never voted to authorize when it adopted the bylaw in 2015.
At question is language saying it is the “obligation” of the owner to submit a plan to work with the Commission either to preserve the property, in whole or in part or find another buyer willing to do so.
Commission member Jim Blaschke who was in attendance at the July 22 meeting, asked town counsel if it is “unusual,” to require a homeowner to put their property on the market during the nine-month delay period to see if there is a legitimate buyer.
“It’s not only unusual; it would likely be illegal,” Talerman said.
Blaschke said the belief was that if the owner couldn’t preserve a building, someone else might be able to.
“That’s an illegal ask of the homeowner?” he asked.
Town counsel replied that the homeowner cannot be compelled to do anything. The town’s bylaw, he said, is about as far as the town could go “in terms of impinging on the rights of the homeowner.”
Asking owners to engage in an activity they choose not to that costs money is “a step too far,” he said.
The responsibility of the owner is to provide information, allow access to the property and secure the premises, as well as participate in investigating options for preservation and “actively cooperating in seeking alternatives with the Commission and any interested parties,” according to the Demolition Delay Bylaw.
Other language in the Commission’s materials, however, stated that if the applicant did not make a good faith effort to find an alternative to demolition, the process would halt and not restart until the Commission decided “reasonable, good faith” efforts are made.
“You just don’t have the authority to do that. Period.,” said Selectman Martin Healey, referring to the Commission. He made the motion to “cease,” use of the documents, saying wording in them seemed to be “imported” from somewhere else.
“It’s unclear where they came from, but [it’s] pretty clear they provide inaccurate, potentially illegal information, in my view. We need to get rid of them,” Healey said.
Talerman also spoke about approaches to support preservation of historic homes. For example, creating an historic district would allow for additional protections—ensuring that building is done in an “historically accurate manner,” for example.
However, although such designations can be used to slow things down, preventing demolition would be difficult, he said.