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Main Street, Southold Photo: Denise Civiletti

Historic Preservation Commission: Use preservation funds to give landmark owners annual cash maintenance grants

A proposal to use Community Preservation Fund monies to provide annual incentive grants to owners of landmarked properties met with resistance from Southold Town Board members today.

The members of the town’s Historic Preservation Commission pitched the idea to the board because the town needs to stoke interest among owners of historic homes in having them designated landmarks.

It’s been a dozen years since the last time a property was designated a town landmark, Historic Preservation Commission chairman James Garretson said. There are three properties that may be added to the town’s register after public hearings this afternoon — the first additions since 2004.

“We currently have 1,100 historic properties in Southold Town and less than 25 percent are landmark-protected, leaving 828 potential historic structures without any kind of protection,” Garretson told the board.

The commission proposes allocating $1,000 per year for disbursement to landmark property owners, to assist them with historic preservation efforts. It is hoped that the annual payment would provide incentive to the owners of historic properties to apply for landmark designation. Commission members voted unanimously for the proposal, Garretson said.

“Both the state law and the town law [adopting the Community Preservation Fund] provide for the use of the CPF for historic preservation,” commission member Anne Surchin said. As of this year, that would mean an annual expenditure of roughly $200,000, a sum that would increase as more properties were designated as landmarks.

“When I go to someone and say you should landmark your house and they ask why, I have nothing to tell them,” commission member Robert Harper said. “The only thing I can say to them is altruism — do it for the future,” he said.

“These properties are as important to Southold’s community character as open space,” Harper said.

Commission member James Grathwohl stressed the importance of maintaining community character and urged upon the board that the town’s character is essential to drawing visitors and maintaining the tourism-based economy.

“Our mission is to maintain the overall ambiance of Southold Town. Historic character is a big part of what brings people here,” Grathwohl said.

Supervisor Scott Russell was quick to voice concerns and objections.

“Who’s going to make sure the maintenance is actually going to be done?” Russell asked. He said such a grant program would be hard to sell to the public.

“You have an $800,000 historic home. How am I going to justify to the rest of the taxpayers who’ve been supporting these programs specific to preservation that we have someone living in an $800,000 home and we’re going to give them money to maintain it?” he asked. “You have to look at all the public perspectives on it.”

Surchin said the homes in the Southold historic district are very representative of homes throughout the township in terms of value.

“Once a property is landmarked, the market value goes up,” the supervisor said. “Why give them money to maintain it?” he asked.

Grathwohl said many owners of landmarked homes are struggling to make ends meet and maintain their homes. The next generation has already moved away, he said. When they inherit the home, they are going to sell it to people who don’t have the same attachment to it as a family that’s owned it since the 17th or 18th centuries.

“Places you’ve lost you can’t bring them back,” Harper said. “This is what gives us the character we have. Picture a place like Centereach with farms — but with their architecture.”

Like farmland preservation, this would be an incentive program to preserve the town’s character, he said.

The supervisor took issue with the analogy. “The land preservation program is not an incentive program,” he said. “It’s a real estate transaction. We don’t pay them annually to maintain a farm. We bought the rights to build on that farm. It’s a one-time thing.”

Councilman Jim Dinizio said he has a problem with the town committing “from now till eternity” to paying $1,000 a year for 11,00 homes. “That’s the number I saw,” Dinizio said.

Councilwoman Jill Doherty agreed. “I’m willing to continue discussion to consider where it’s a one-time thing. I think it’s worth further discussion. I’m not willing to put it in the yearly budget forever.”

Doherty said $1,000 is not a lot per home, but altogether it’s a big investment for the town.

“The key word is investment,” Grathwohl urged. “It is an investment. It’s not a giveaway.”

Garretson said the group would go back and work on the idea further and asked the supervisor, as the town board liaison to the commission, if he would work with the commission on that.

Before Russell would commit to looking at it further, he said he wants to talk to the land preservation commission first.

“I have a real problem with it,” Russell explained.

“The CPF program is not flush. It’s not robust. It’s not like we’ve run out of projects,” he said. “To the contrary, we have so many projects that we’re actually negotiating with owners, phasing in purchases over three or four years, waiting for money to come in,” he said. “I think you’ve got to find another way.”

Russell suggested a recognition program, such as a “house of the year” award, that would provide an incentive for homeowners to consider the landmark designation.