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About Heritage District ‘oversight’

Congratulations to the residents of Greenfield for exercising common sense and good judgment at Town Meeting. Over 79 percent of voters there rejected the Heritage District proposed by the Greenfield Planning Board (see Ledger-Transcript articles “Heritage district overwhelmingly defeated at polls” published March 13 and “Hope remains for heritage district” on March 27).

Having recently completed three years of service on the Hancock Historic District Commission, it’s my opinion that the town of Greenfield has saved itself unnecessary aggravation by rejecting the proposal as tendered.

Hancock’s Historic District Ordinance was adopted in 1975 “to safeguard the heritage of the town of Hancock.” In that year, Hancock’s Main Street was a picture-postcard example of a small rural New England village, and it remains so today. Who do we have to thank for this, the commission? No, the answer is the generations of district property owners and residents who, for 175-plus years before the adoption of the ordinance, used their common sense and good judgment to build, enlarge and often remodel structures and properties as they saw fit. Capes were transformed into colonials, houses and barns were moved regularly and architectural modifications followed changing functional needs.

Today, the Hancock Historic District Commission and other such commissions tend to foster annoyance, evasion and distrust. During my tenure on the commission, where we met regularly in Hancock’s vinyl-sided townhouse, I witnessed applicants figuratively pound the table in frustration, berate the committee for applying the ordinance inconsistently, and breakdown in tears at the long grueling process. Others ignored the permitting process altogether, finding it easier to offer mea culpas after the fact. Perhaps Greenfield can develop a better approach.

According to the most recent Ledger article on the subject, “Hope remains for heritage district,” Planning Board member James Fletcher suggested that the ordinance be reconsidered “the way it is, but make participation strictly voluntary.” His position has merit on two counts. First, there is a constructive role for an advisory committee that is willing to provide information and no-cost advice to district residents who seek guidance regarding modifications and repairs. The Greenfield Historical Society could be quite helpful in this regard. Second, the voluntary approach gives credit where it’s due — to district property owners. More than anyone else, they have the cultural and financial incentive to maintain their properties well and to preserve the historic attributes of Greenfield.

Timothy J. Lord lives in Hancock.

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