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Preserving history  requires compromise

The provisions of Hancock’s Historic District are very clear: No changes, improvements or alterations may be made to structures in the Historic District without approval of the Historic District Commission. And there’s good reason for that.

The Historic District Ordinance, first established in Hancock in 1975, was adopted by the town as part of its mission to preserve the historic integrity of the town. Many of its Main Street buildings have a place on the National Register of Historic Places — something to take pride in, and many Hancock residents do, especially those on the Historic District Commission.

The commission’s job is to review applications for structural changes within the district, and to help guide property owners as they make improvements. But sometimes things don’t go so smoothly.

When the commission reviewed Tracy Stevens’ application to replace garage doors in August, Stevens had already swapped out her dilapidated and aging 1960s garage doors for some new ones on the advice of a contractor who told her the change didn’t fall under the purview of the commission. He was wrong.

Having been given some erroneous information, Stevens paid for and installed new garage doors, and then learned she would have to have them approved by the commission. Here was the commission’s chance to educate Stevens.

At first, the commission was inclined to approve the application, according to the minutes of the commission’s Aug. 7 meeting. But, the commissioners backtracked and decided to conduct a site visit to the area, where it was recalled that approvals for door replacements since 2004 have been for wooden ones. In denying Stevens’ application, the commission listed the following as part of the reason: “The replacement doors do not match the former doors or other replacement barn doors in the district.”

Stevens appealed the commission’s decision to the Zoning Board, saying she can’t afford to replace the new garage doors. The Zoning Board has continued its hearing of the appeal in the hopes that the commission and Stevens can come to a compromise on their own, without the need for the ZBA’s involvement. This was a wise decision and we hope a compromise can be reached.

As much as we applaud the Historic District Commission’s vigilance, it’s unfortunate that a lawyer had to be hired for an appeal in such a minor case.

The commission is as much concerned with historic preservation as it is with fairness and consistency in its dealings with applicants, as its Aug. 21 meeting minutes can attest: “Concern was expressed that although the installation already represents an expense to the applicant, fairness demands that all applicants be treated with consistency, regardless of when the application is filed.” No two cases are ever exactly the same, though. And while there’s the letter of the law, there’s also the spirit of the law.

Where it really counts, taking a hard line is appropriate. Crying wolf on minor issues, on the other hand, is the fastest way to alienate the very people you may be trying to convert.

In the Stevens case, we’ve seen the garage doors and we venture to guess they are a vast improvement over the ones they replaced. If education and building consensus over the mission of historic preservation is part of the commission’s purpose, finding a way to work with the doors is the answer. It would be a shame to see a case like this go to court.

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