We thought we had found a good way to help preserve some of Main Road’s many historic resources — one that provided access to tax credits and other benefits while not bringing any new restrictions or regulations that would interfere with property owner rights. I still believe that very strongly. So what went wrong with the Landmark Preservation Commission’s efforts to nominate Main Road to the National Register of Historic Places?
From the beginning, we knew that creating a National Register district on the scale of the Main Road corridor was a long shot. It was an audacious plan. There were lots of impediments to overcome. It was also a huge amount of work, with thousands of hours of volunteer time. But we managed to overcome all of the obstacles we knew about.
What we didn’t anticipate was the intense distrust and suspicion of state and federal government. As the New York Times wrote recently, Americans are disillusioned. They question whether government can do anything good. Polls show that public confidence is falling. There is a deep-seated cynicism — and an impetus to create fear of government and exploit it for political ends.
Once those deep-seated visceral reactions were unleashed, it was difficult or impossible for us to present facts, have a rational argument or get in front of the discussion. We tried to communicate. We met twice with both the Riverhead and the Southold town boards, and received strong support. We held public information meetings. We received strong and positive coverage in the local media.
But, because of unanticipated delays in the process, our communication efforts were spread out over a two-year period. By the time property owners received their letters from the state offering them the option to vote against the district, they had forgotten about the benefits. A small group of individuals, some of whom freely admit that they “don’t trust anything the federal or state government does” and others who had had particularly sour experiences dealing with government bureaucracies, started organizing opposition.
Most of their claims had little basis in fact. Some were simply based on confusion between National Register districts, which bring no regulations and restrictions, and local historic districts which do. We heard over and over comments like “I don’t want the government telling me what to do, or what color to paint my front door.” Of course, there is nothing in the National Register rules that tells property owners what to do. Even the local historic districts on the North Fork don’t restrict what color people paint their front doors.
The leaders of the opposition claimed that somehow having the prestige and tax credits of a National Register designation would lead eventually to the imposition of a local historic district. However, they were never able to show a plausible mechanism by which that could happen, since the creation of local districts is totally at the discretion of our town boards.
Opponents said it was a “fact” that historic districts hurt property values — even though every real estate agent we talked to on the North Fork said just the opposite and even though there are numerous careful studies showing that historic districts actually increase property resale values.
Opponents interpreted some cautious legal language in the state letter to indicate that they were going to face new state reviews whenever they interacted with any part of the state bureaucracy. In fact, careful examination of the process shows that designation to the National Register would change nothing.
Some opponents went much further, imagining all sorts of things that could happen — without any basis in fact whatsoever. How does one argue with that?
Clearly we should have anticipated this level of suspicion and mistrust in government, especially in the current toxic environment. We should have reached out to property owners to seek their advice before submitting the proposal. Once the tide of misinformation and groundless claims started rising there was little we could do but pull the proposal.
Now, every time we lose another dilapidated old house along Main Road — as we recently lost the gambrel-roofed 1828 Alva Corwin house across from the deli in Aquebogue — I will wonder if that loss might have been prevented if the owner had access to the 40 percent commercial tax credits a National Register district brings. Every time I see businesses like Clovis Point Vineyard converting the 1928 Zaweski potato barn into its tasting room or like the Granna restaurant restoring the former Griffin music store, I will think about the 40 percent tax credits the owners of those commercial properties could have received had the National Register district been in place.
And I will wonder how many more such restoration projects will not happen without those incentives. Admittedly, as critics have pointed out, the commercial credits are only for major restoration projects and do carry some restrictions. But, projects like these would almost certainly have qualified — as have the Woolworth and Suffolk Theater projects in downtown Riverhead where a National Register district has been in place on parts of Main Street for some years without a single complaint or problem.
Even more sadly, every time I see a homeowner struggling to replace an asphalt roof, install cedar siding or update a failing heating system, I will suspect that they would have appreciated saving 20 percent on the cost of the entire project. Unlike the commercial credits, the homeowner credits are relatively easy to qualify for and are available for a wide range of projects with few restrictions. Almost 90 percent of the Riverhead homes along Main Road are over 50 years old and would have qualified.
With these benefits and no restrictions, the honor of National Register designation should have received overwhelming public support. However, in the current climate of fear and mistrust, once false allegations are propagated they are difficult to stop. We should have anticipated this and reached out sooner. Next time we will.
Richard Wines is chairman of the Riverhead Landmarks Preservation Commission. He lives in Jamesport.
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