Historic district windows to be replaced in Amherst

Photo by KATHY CLEVELAND The Amherst Village is said to be the largest historic district in New Hampshire. Changes to exterior features historic are governed by district regulations.

AMHERST – The town’s historic district commission recently approved the replacement of old windows in an historic district home with aluminum-clad ones, with one member warning that legal challenges could result.

After more than an hour of discussion April 20, the commission voted 4-1, with one abstention, to allow the replacement windows, with Chairman Jamie Ramsay saying the new windows will maintain the character and feel of the property.

But Tom Grella, who cast the dissenting vote, said the commission had never before approved aluminum-clad windows, and it’s risky.

“I’m thinking of all the people who were not given an opportunity” to have aluminum-clad and who could come back and say why not,” said Grella, the selectmen’s representative on the commission. The town’s “legal budget will be skyrocketing.”

Commission member Christopher Hall, however, said the windows will not be highly visible, and though the house is in the historic district, it is not on the National Register of Historic Places, so it’s not what’s called a “contributing house.”

The owners of an Amherst Street house had asked the commission’s approval to replace 10 existing windows in their historic district home.

The commission’s job is to protect contributing houses, he said emphatically, meaning ones that are on the register, “and do the right thing for non-contributing houses.”

Historic district commissions in Nantucket, Exeter and other New England towns are adopting better standards for the rehabilitation of old buildings, Hall said, and allowing aluminum-clad windows is at the top of the list of guideline changes.

Member Doug Chabinsky suggested waiting until new guidelines are approved and said the commission has traditionally said, “if it’s not wood, it’s not approved.”

But Hall said the current regulations allow the commission to make an interpretation and to be more lenient with non-contributing buildings and also take maintenance and energy-efficiency into account.

Homeowner Mark Laflamme told the commission he’s not aware of the house’s vintage. It could have been built in the late 1800s or even as recent as 1920, and he hadn’t known his new house was in the historic district.

Commission member Sue Clark said she doubts that an owner of a house built in the 1700s, for example, would complain about allowing aluminum windows on a much newer house.

In a phone interview, Gordon Leedy, Amherst’s community development director, said the town is in the early stages of rewriting its historic district regulations, based on U.S. Department of Interior historic preservation guidelines. Those guidelines say changes to non-conforming structures should be sympathetic to the district, but should not attempt to replicate an historic building and give “a false sense of history,” he said.

In rewriting the regulations, the town will first establish criteria and then craft a set of regulations based on the criteria, and part of the process will be revisiting Amherst’s inventory of historic district properties that was done about 30 years ago.

“We kind of know what the important buildings are,” but are not clear on why they’re important, Leedy said. Regulations should be based on the town’s regulatory authority, so home buyers know what they are buying, he said, and all regulation changes will be clear and incremental, and all new regulations will be subject to a public meeting process.

“It’s very complicated as a regulatory matter,” he said, and officials “don’t want to stray from their regulatory authority. “The town adopted the historic district regulations decades ago with the purpose of preserving its late-18th to early-19th century New England village center, said to be the largest historic district in New Hampshire and one of the largest in New England.

Kathy Cleveland can be reached at 673-3100 or kcleveland@cabinet.com.