Select Board Underwhelmed By Input Considered In HDC Review

David Creed •

Screenshot 2024 02 27 at 4 22 38 PM
Nantucket Select Board chair Dawn Holdgate speaking during last Wednesday's joint meeting with the HDC.

The Nantucket Select Board and Historic District Commission (HDC) held a joint meeting last Wednesday to give the National Alliance of Preservation Commission’s (NAPC) an opportunity to present their organizational assessment of the HDC. Immediate, short, and long-term guidance and considerations were provided by the consultants during the 90-minute presentation, but how many of these suggestions are acted upon remains up in the air after Select Board members expressed their disappointment with the overall scope of who had input in this assessment – a change that came as a surprise to them.

In the original plan, current and past HDC commissioners, current and past staff, selection of applicants and agents, and other stakeholders deemed necessary – including members of the general public - were slated to be interviewed by the NAPC.

Along the way however, a change in the process occurred and only current commissioners and current staff (such as Town Manager Libby Gibson and PLUS Director Leslie Snell) were interviewed and sought out for their input.

“I am very interested in the change in scope and who made that decision specifically,” Select Board Vice Chair Brooke Mohr asked NAPC principal Lisa Craig during the presentation. “It is a pretty significant change based on what I intended as a Select Board member for the input to be to this process, so I am curious how that came about.”

Town Preservation Planner Holly Backus told the Board after the presentation that there was a list of individuals to be interviewed outside of the HDC commissioners, Gibson, and Snell, and that list included individuals such as Holdgate. However the plan was to complete the initial HDC review before moving onto those interviews.

“Unfortunately, I will say I dropped the ball on making sure that was done,” Backus said. “It was supposed to be part of it, and I will apologize on that.”

Select Board chair Dawn Holdgate, along with board members Malcolm MacNab and Matt Fee echoed similar sentiments to Mohr.

“I don’t disagree. I expected a broader scope and I was actually surprised I was never interviewed,” Holdgate, who also served as a commissioner on the HDC for 12 years, said. “I thought someone else on the Board maybe had been.”

Holdgate asked if there was room within the contract to further the report to complete this second phase of interviews and gathering of input, but Backus said she believed the contract expired that day and was amended to get to February 21.

The report was divided into five categories including staff administration and operation, procedural process, conduct of HDC meetings, decision-making, and future considerations, where the NAPC provided the commission and Board with their suggestions for how to move forward.

The NAPC also reviewed video of at least three HDC meetings, held online meetings with staff and HDC vice chair Stephen Welch, completed an online survey and SWOT assessment, as well as a site visit and tour with staff.

Some recommendations included putting guiding documents in one place, as well as revising and implementing updated language to make the bylaws and documents more user friendly to help create better public understanding and education on the HDC, what it is, how it makes decisions, and how it operates.

The NAPC suggested the HDC complete a community values assessment to prioritize properties with the greatest community significance based on social, cultural, architectural, economic, and historical values. They also suggested the HDC develop area-specific illustrated guidelines.

“What works as a guideline in town may not serve well in Madaket, it may not serve well in Brant Point,” NAPC preservation manager Kimberly Rose said during the presentation. “So creating area-specific guidelines allows for informed decision-making processes with architecture that is not mentioned in building with Nantucket in mind."

The NAPC also suggested reconsidering legislation to have appeals go to court rather than the Select Board.

Snell spoke after the presentation and said while she believes there were a lot of really good suggestions made by the NAPC, implementing them could require some “significant changes.”

“I think they have a lot of really good suggestions both at the staffing level and for the elected officials. But I am concerned about a lot of the recommendations because I think they are great recommendations, but I don’t think they work within our current framework, within the current enabling legislation, within our current staffing structure,” Snell said. “I think a lot of that would need to change, and I am supportive of it, but I don’t want this report to set up the PLUS staff or the HDC with perceived failure for not being able to implement these. So I want you all to keep that in mind – that a lot of these suggestions are really good but do require a lot of significant changes.”

HDC commissioner Vallorie Oliver had a different takeaway. She said she didn’t think there was much change needed based on what was outlined in the presentation.

“A lot of the things in this report are actually things we already do,” Oliver said. “It is not this litany of things that need to change. Maybe stuff needs to be tightened up and made a little bit more clear but I feel like by and large, thank you for agreeing we do a lot of things the right way.”

MacNab remained frustrated afterwards and circled back to the small scope of people that input was sought from to generate the conclusions made in the assessment.

“You missed input from a lot of people who could give you a different perspective. It is missing, I’m sorry, it is just plain missing,” MacNab said.

Mohr also reiterated her concern with the limited scope of input following the presentation.

“I want to make sure that is considered as we consider implementing the recommendations because I am not sure all of the voices were heard in the process and I have a little bit of worry about that, how that came to be, and how it impacts the final result,” Mohr said.

Select Board member Matt Fee said he would like to see Backus and the HDC come back to the board in the next two to three months to provide an update on the work they are doing in the aftermath of this assessment.

“If I were doing these at my business I’d be saying whose going to be doing it, how are they going to be doing it, when are they going to do it, how much is it going to cost, and have some accountability and I wouldn’t expect all of it to be done immediately but you would set up expectations,” Fee said. “I think it would be entirely appropriate to have them come back and say ‘These are the things we are working on, here is why, and here is how we are doing it, and update us. And here is where we need help from you.”

Former Nantucket Historical Commission chair Hillary Hedges Rayport said she appreciated the report and that there are “a lot of really great things in the report,” but asked why the advisory boards were not mentioned given the sudden shut down of the HDC’s advisory committees in 2022 was one of the sparks that drove for this report to be done in the first place.

She said she was hoping to see an evaluation of their role in assisting the HDC given it was included as part of the scope of the project. NAPC principal Lisa Craig responded by saying they were limited to talk to the HDC members and key staff.

“I’m disappointed in that aspect myself because I feel like advisory boards, and I know it can be hard to support them at this point, but I also know that they do a ton of work,” Fee said responding to Craig. “I also worry about the perception. I think the perception might be that this is from an HDC and staff perspective, not necessarily from an advisory board and people who have been involved for 20 years who felt wronged when they were sort of cut out of the process from a staff decision.”

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