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Beacon School Officials Ask for Leeway from Watertown's Historic District Restrictions

The Watertown Historic District Commission made changes to the historic district ordinance and design rules before sending the proposal for a district, made up of the Orchard House, to state officials

Officials from Beacon High School officially opposed making their property at 917 Belmont St. into a historic district, and asked – if the district is created - the commission to give them some leeway for the historic requirements.

The district would restrict the exterior appearance of the historic Orchard House, which dates back to the 1830s and has ties to Bunker Hill, the Revolutionary War and the Abolitionist Movement.

Watertown Historic District Commission Chairman Harvey Steiner said the historic requirements would only apply to features that are historic, not parts that have been modernized.

“If it becomes a historic district, (the rules apply to) what is there now,” Steiner said. “If it is a plastic (framed) window now, you can keep it. You don’t have to go back and make it historic.”

Also, Steiner said, if a vinyl window needs replacing, it can be replaced with a vinyl window. If it becomes a historic wooden window frame, however, it would have to be repaired or replaced in the historic style.

Steve Tannenbaum, the vice president of the Walker School Board of Directors – which oversees Beacon High School – said he thought a lot of the ordinance did not apply to the proposed district. The ordinance was written originally for the Mt. Auburn Historic District.

Tannenbaum also said he hoped the school could have looser requirements for things like lighting around the property. The school serves students with special needs and behavioral issues, and at times new lighting must be installed for their safety, Tannenbaum said.

Steiner asked Tannenbaum to send any suggested changes to him so they could be considered for the proposed ordinance and design review guidelines.

Historical Commission Chairman David Russo, who worked on the historic district proposal, made his suggestions for how to alter the guidelines for the district. He also said he thought the rules should not be made too strict for the 917 Belmont Street Historic District.

“I recommend a flexible tone with this, because it is a single property,” Russo said. “If there is a question of whether or not to include (a guideline) perhaps you should not do it.”

Steiner said the proposal sent to the Massachusetts Historical Commission can still be altered after the MHC gives it its’ OK.

“This is not set in stone,” Steiner said. “We can’t have hearings until we get it back from the MHC.”

A public hearing will be held after the MHC approves the proposed ordinance, Steiner said, and he said Beacon officials could make their suggestions then, too.

The changes to the Historic District Ordinance will be discussed and approved at the HDC’s next meeting in November and then sent to the Massachusetts Historical Commission, said Conservation Agent Chris Hayward.

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