Citizen Petition Seeks To Extend Nantucket's "Demolition Delay" Bylaw

JohnCarl McGrady •

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How long should a property owner have to wait before they're allowed to demolish their home? 

The Nantucket Preservation Trust (NPT) is sponsoring a citizen’s warrant article for the 2024 Special Town Meeting seeking to extend the period property owners are required to wait for would-be movers to claim buildings that would otherwise be destroyed before beginning demolition. The article also clears up some language obligating homeowners to wait until after they have acquired a certificate of appropriateness from the Historic District Commission (HDC) and completed the building commissioner’s review before posting the public notice that begins the countdown to demolition.

“The aim [of the citizen’s warrant article] is to maintain the inventory of year-round dwellings and to reduce the amount of waste that goes into the landfill,” said Mary Bergman, executive director of NPT. “In my mind, demolishing houses at the scale we are seeing, that's not part of Nantucket's history. Reuse, that is our history.”

Nantucket Preservation Trust executive director Mary Bergman

The trend of new property owners demolishing existing dwellings to build newer, larger, and more modern homes on Nantucket has been ongoing for decades. Nantucket’s existing “demolition delay” bylaw established a waiting period during which the town and the applicant can propose and consider alternatives to the demolition of a building of residential value. It is intended to minimize the quantity of demolition debris ending up in the landfill, create an incentive for the reuse of residential structures, and give interested parties an opportunity to acquire reusable residential structures. The town also requires property owners to place an ad in an island newspaper to make any house slated for demolition available to anyone able to take it away - at their cost.

Under the existing bylaw, claimants must submit a letter stating their intention to move the building within 30 days and must carry out that move within 60 days.

Bergman does not believe this is enough time to facilitate a house move on Nantucket. Since property owners can file the public notice before their HDC hearing, the time between HDC approval and demolition is often far less than 60 days.

The HDC discussed NPT’s article at a recent meeting, with the board seeming somewhat divided. Commissioners Abby Camp and Stephen Welch signaled their support for the article, while commissioner Val Oliver suggested she was likely opposed to it. Associate HDC member Joe Paul said he would support the NPT article if the waiting period was somewhere between 30 and 180 days.

“I would support it if it wasn’t 180 days,” Paul said. “I think you could work with 180 days, but it seems a little excessive. I don’t know what the workaround would be. I would acknowledge that 30 doesn’t seem realistic at all and we’re losing a lot of buildings because of it.”

Bergman is meeting with the HDC on July 12th and is open to compromise.

“It's been brought up that six months is a long. Most people I know who want to move structures are moving them because they want to live in them and they don't want to wait six months either,” she said. “We're willing to listen and compromise while also keeping in mind that the 120 people who backed this want to see a substantial increase to that delay time.”

The increased delay could also have environmental impacts. A 2022 study claimed Nantucket could salvage and reuse more than 4,500 tons of building materials each year generated by the island’s construction and demolition activity, potentially reducing greenhouse gas emissions by the same amount as taking 869 cars off the road. While this bylaw wouldn’t generate savings that significant, the decrease in greenhouse gas emissions could still be meaningful. 

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