LENOX -- With an eye toward the town’s upcoming 250th anniversary celebrations, the Lenox Historical Commission is proposing that the entire community, or most of it, be nominated for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.
While the designation is largely symbolic, there would be benefits for the town, according to Olga Weiss, who chairs the commission.
The downtown village and business center is already a historic district, with design and signage restrictions overseen by a separate group, the Lenox Historic District Commission.
An informational forum for the public is slated for the Town Hall Auditorium this Tuesday at 7 p.m. featuring Betsy Friedberg, director of the National Register for the Massachusetts Historical Commission, a state agency that is the gatekeeper for the national organization.
Any applications for the National Register have to win approval from the state commission, which would then forward a recommendation to Washington.
The designation would make federal tax incentives available for business owners seeking to spruce up their home or commercial properties, and also offers eligibility for matching state grants to restore sites owned by private non-profits and by municipalities.
Members of the town’s Chamber of Commerce are being urged to attend the public meeting on Tuesday, said Executive Director Ralph Petillo.
While he is reserving judgment on the merits of a National Register designation, Petillo expressed the hope that if it goes forward, town voters would be able to approve or reject the plan through a special ballot that would be mailed to all residents.
The Select Board is expected to weigh in on any application for a national listing, but it’s unclear whether the proposal would require approval at the annual town meeting held in early May.
"People will be worried that they’ll have restrictions," said Weiss. "That’s hard to swallow if you’re a business. Business owners would be most resistant to this happening."
Weiss acknowledged that "people who own property get very upset" over potential historic designations, but maintained, "people should be happy about it, they just don’t know it. The more we point out what a beautiful historical gem this town is, the more people will want to come here."
Weiss asserted that the town has neglected its "rich colonial history, this is an opportunity to bring it forward."
She emphasized that the purpose of the Tuesday meeting is to explain what a listing in the National Register means, and doesn’t mean. A question and answer session will follow the presentation.
She said her commission came up with the idea through a consultant hired to help with the restoration of the town’s Church on the Hill cemetery, funded by taxpayers through the Community Preservation Act.
With preliminary planning already underway to celebrate the town’s 250th anniversary in 2017, Weiss suggested that a National Registry listing would give the town "much more cachet" and thus attract more visitors.
"The only thing it confers is an honor, it’s very symbolic," she added. One issue to be determined is whether a designation could apply to the town, including Lenox Dale, but excluding the Route 7 & 20 commercial corridor.
The National Register of Historic Places, administered by the National Park Service, is the federal government’s official list of districts, sites, buildings, structures, and objects considered worthy of preservation. More than one million properties are designated; 80,000 are listed individually, while the rest are "contributing resources" within historic districts.
About 30,000 properties are added to the National Register each year. National Register Historic Districts are defined geographical areas consisting of contributing and non-contributing properties.
A listing does not protect properties, according to the National Park Service website, since state and local zoning bodies may or may not choose to protect designated historic places. But indirect protection is possible through state and local regulations of development on National Register properties, and by tax incentives.
The mission of the town’s Historical Commission, formed by the Select Board, is to preserve, protect and record the historical assets of Lenox; to assist any town board upon request, and to educate citizens about their historical heritage through exhibits and lectures.
The commission also makes public records available to anyone who asks, and assists people wanting to place their buildings on the National Register of Historic Places.
Information: www.nps.gov/nr or Olga Weiss: (413) 637-3375.
To contact Clarence Fanto:
firstname.lastname@example.org or (413) 637-2551.
On Twitter: @BE_cfanto