Though unanimously opposed by the Advisory Committee, a proposed demolition delay bylaw was only narrowly struck down at Town Meeting.
That was in 1991.
Opponents criticized the proposed bylaw as a hindrance to development and growth. Preservationists saw it as a way to curtail—though not summarily stop–the disappearance of historically significant buildings from the town’s landscape.
In the three years preceding the 1991 attempt, which failed by a mere 41 votes, the town had authorized all of 13 demolition permits for houses, with a handful more authorizing the destruction of garages and barns.
Ninety-five such permits were issued in 2015 along, and from 2012 to 2015, Wellesley’s building department issued an average of 73 per year, according to data obtained by the Townsman.
In 2017, the Historical Commission intends try once more codify what amounts to a pause button on the town’s demolition and redevelopment cycle.
If the commission is successful, Wellesley would join all of its immediate neighbors—towns and cities that count themselves among 146 in Massachusetts that have some form of demolition delay—in implementing a bylaw that temporarily curbs home demolitions.
Surrounded by slow-downs
Newton implemented its Demolition Review Ordinance in 1985, requiring that any home older than 50 years undergo a yearlong waiting period before being torn down.
In 2016, 84 percent of Newton’s housing stock—which totals more than 24,000 homes—is subject to that restriction, according to Katy Holmes, a city planner and administrator of the town’s demolition review process.
“It is not intended to prevent [demolition] in all cases,” Holmes said this week. “It’s intended to delay in order to give everyone time” to come up with a solution that spares older homes from complete destruction and replacement.
Since 2006, 640 single- and two-family homes have been torn down in Newton.
Despite having nearly triple the housing stock that Wellesley does, Newton’s teardowns only slightly out-pace the approximately 600* that have been wiped from Wellesley’s landscape during the same period.
Weston implemented its own demolition delay bylaw in 2006, according to Alicia Primer, co-Chair of that town’s Historical Commission, and has used it 24 times in the years since.
The initial bylaw, she said, allowed for a six-month waiting period on homes built before 1945, which was in 2015 extended to a one-year delay.
According to Tad Heuer, chairman of the Wellesley Historical Commission, it remains to be seen how a potential bylaw would be structured in Wellesley. The commission does not yet know how long of a delay it might seek, nor has it settled on the totality of the criteria it would use to determine historical significance.
Needham, Dover and Natick have delay bylaws of their own that postpone demolitions. Dover implemented a review process in 1995—just four years after Wellesley rejected one—and expanded it in 2002.
In 2015, Natick issued 16 demolition permits, Dover issued 10 and Weston authorized 36. Needham and Newton signed off on 103 and 110 teardowns, respectively.
In Wellesley, though, it would at the very least put the town on a level playing field with its neighbors, according to Heuer, giving preservationists a chance to work with homeowners and developers to find a middle ground.
Even with demolition delay bylaws, though, there is no statute that allows towns or cities to permanently block the wrecking ball.
One-third of the houses in Newton marked for demolition since 2010 are still standing, according to Holmes. She’d like to believe that’s at least somewhat attributable to the city’s efforts to retain its older homes while making them livable for residents in 2016.
In the last three years, the number of partial demolition permit applications in Newton has gone up as well.
“To me that’s a success because it says developers and/or owners who do not want to go through a delay process…” are willing to examine alternatives, Holmes said.
“In the case of an addition, that means the house is largely preserved and can accommodate the needs of a modern family,” she added. “That’s a win-win for everybody.”
According to Heuer, his group is trying to find a solution that works similarly in Wellesley.
Rather than taking a more aggressive approach of re-zoning parts of town into historic districts— Wellesley only has one multiple-home district, plus four single-home districts —preservationists hope to slow down the clock while still ultimately giving homeowners latitude to adapt their homes.
“The most important thing is we use it judiciously,” said Primer, of Weston. “We use it very, very infrequently, and so that’s the key. By using it carefully we got the town’s support, nobody feels we’re taking their property values away.”
Weston has a lengthy list of specifically identified properties that are protected in addition to those covered under its pre-1945 rule.
Weston is working to expand its program, according to Primer, and historically minded leaders in Wellesley’s more rural neighboring town hope to institute a rolling 50-year backdate—like Newton’s—rather than having historical review frozen at the end of World War II.
“That’s a goal, a long term goal of ours because…we’re losing our mid-century moderns,” Primer said, referring to homes built after Weston’s built-in automatic review date of 1945. However, she acknowledged—as did Heuer—that merely reaching middle age is not a benchmark for historic significance.
“The problem,” she said, “is just trying to weed through the ones that were built after  and see which ones we should worry about.”
Heuer, too, added that the Wellesley commission’s focus in many cases skews toward the older homes that date back to Wellesley’s founding.
Having a bylaw like surrounding towns would, at the very least, give the commission time to establish a home’s significance if it lies outside the historic district, he said.
Changing demand, changing character
Many of the original homes in the Woodlands neighborhood on the western edge of Wellesley are gone.
Built in the months and years after the Allied victory over Axis forces in the European and Pacific theaters, the ranches and Cape Cod style homes that once accommodated returning veterans have been replaced by larger ones.
According to Roger Kane, a developer who has been in the business for four decades, that’s little more than a reflection of changing desires of modern homebuyers.
“Today the demand in town is for new homes, bigger than the existing homes that are on the lot,” Kane said. “If there was some sort of restriction put on teardowns, it really hurts the homeowners; the people who actually live in Wellesley.”
Selling their homes, Kane added, is how those residents fund their retirement and elder years. Delays like the yearlong wait for many in Newton, only hurt the homeowner, according to Kane.
“For current-day buyers in Wellesley,” Kane said, referring to those older, smaller homes, “that’s not what they’re looking for.” Tearing down and replacing those homes, said the developer, who builds 10 to 12 homes in Wellesley each year, is simply a response to demand.
If more people wanted smaller homes, he added, that’s what he would build.
Heuer feels there is still demand for smaller homes, and that not all new homebuyers are looking for larger homes that he said are counter to the character of the town’s neighborhoods.
“Most of those houses are sold to people that renovate them or live in them as they bought them,” Heuer said, adding that there were more home sales last year than there were demolition permits issued. “I don’t think there’s a sea change in that respect.”
Of the 328 single-family homes sold in 2015, according to Pinnacle Residential Properties, only one-third sold for $1 million or less. It’s unclear how many of the 114 homes sold in that price range last year were among the 95 permitted for demolition in 2015 or the 22 permitted so far in 2016.
Kane grew up in Hudson, a few towns over from Wellesley. It was a blue collar town when he lived there, he said, and it remains one today. Wellesley, or at least its tastes, have changed according to Kane.
The dozen-or-so homes he builds each year are being sold in much the same way as the homes they replaced, he added. They’re bigger, he acknowledged, but no bigger than is allowed by existing zoning laws.
“They’re going to young families, the same as the homes I’m tearing down went to young families when they were built 50 years ago, 60 years ago,” Kane said. “If I was building 30 years ago in Wellesley… I’d probably be building 2,200 to 2,800 square feet. That’s what the demand was.”
According to Heuer, the commission’s effort is about more than just the occasional big house.
“It’s more than just one building or one structure,” he said. “It’s a streetscape and a neighborhood.”
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
When Town Meeting rejected the demolition delay effort in 1991, the town was fresh off a year in which four homes had been torn down. That number has skyrocketed over the 25 years since that decision, and since 2002 has never dropped lower than 38 permits in a single year.
Back then; according to a story on the vote printed in the Townsman, Town Meeting Member Warren Little said that tearing down a home required “just a handshake with the building inspector.”
Paperwork aside, that much hasn’t changed.
*Portions of Wellesley’s data obtained by the Townsman is broken up by fiscal year and portions by calendar year. Data provided by Newton is broken down entirely by calendar year.