Can island preserve its history?A new ordinance could give incentive for saving old homes.
June 9, 2008 · Updated 3:48 PM
"Kathy and Leon Kos like history, as they demonstrated by buying and preserving Bainbridge Island's oldest house. And after putting that much time and trouble into an 1856 structure, she wants to make sure the next buyer and the one after that are also interested in history, and not simply in the Port Madison half-acre where the house is located.It really scares us that it might be torn down sometime, she said. We've done a lot to the house to preserve it, and I'd really like to see some way to save these old buildings.So would the Bainbridge Historical Society. In an effort to save the island's history, the Society has proposed a historic preservation ordinance that would help both the owners and the city save the island's past.The ordinance would establish a local register of historic places. Original entry onto the register would be entirely voluntary - an owner would have to consent to nomination of his property.But once the property is on the registry, then the island's historic preservation commission - a seven-member group that would be appointed by the mayor - would have to approve demolition or major alterations. If the approval were denied, then no building or demolition permit could issue.We were surprised to learn that protection has to happen at the local level to prevent a historic structure from being demolished or radically altered, historical society Director Joan Piper said. Being on a state or national register of historic places does not provide any protection.Local registerThe ordinance, which will be presented and discussed at citizen meetings today and Monday at the Commons, sets out the criteria for placement on the register. In addition to being more than 50 years old and in sound physical condition, the structure or site must be associated with events or people significant to island history, possess outstanding architectural attributes or be examples of a particular period or style of design or construction.An owner who places property on the register could enjoy a substantial tax benefit for restoring the house, said attorney David Thorne, an island resident who drafted the ordinance based on existing ordinances in 26 Washington cities.Under the ordinance, Thorne said, the value of any improvements would not be included in the property assessment for a period of 10 years. If the owner accepted the tax break, then altered or demolished the property within 10 years, the full-value tax would be assessed retroactively to the time of the original improvement, Thorne said.This is not only an incentive to rehabilitate a property, but to maintain it after rehabilitation, Thorne said.In order to be eligible for that tax reduction, though, the city has to become what is called a Certified Local Government, or CLG. The ordinance accomplishes that task.After the informational meetings, the draft ordinance will be considered by the Historical Society's board of directors, then forwarded on to the city for its consideration.According to Kathy Cook of the city planning department, city involvement to date has been minimal. The city is not formally involved in the meetings, and has not reviewed the ordinance.There is a section in the comprehensive plan calling for historical preservation, so the city has been wanting to implement an ordinance for some time, Cook said. But because the city doesn't really have the staff to deal with this right now, it asked the Historical Society to take the lead. One possible source of tension, Cook acknowledged, arises from the fact that many of the island's older structures are located in downtown Winslow, where the comprehensive plan calls for putting residential density.There is a provision in the ordinances saying that if you can build on a piece of property and preserve a historical structure, the structure doesn't count against your density, she said. But where someone wants to remove or demolish a historic structure and build something new, then yes, there is a tension.Piper, though, thinks that the island's choice might be to preserve history.At least the people who want to preserve these buildings will be given some support, she said.And she said there is simply no substitute for the historical building or object.These buildings are evidence of what went on in the past. Stories can contain errors and memories can fade, but when you have the thing, it's the best evidence of what was. "