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Expanded Uxbridge historic district prompts yeas, nays

By Rod Lee

Whenever a move is afoot to preserve the historic character and uniqueness of small New England towns, a corresponding hue and cry typically goes up from businesspersons and sometimes residents claiming that advocates of “as is” are against “progress.”

Such a scenario could be playing out in Uxbridge right now. Fortunately, it isn’t. But this is not to say there hasn’t been a smattering of resistance to a proposed amendment to an original historic district bylaw adopted at Town Meeting in 2004, implemented in 2005 and updated in 2014 that would expand the bounds of the area that was defined in that local ordinance.

In discussing a Q-and-A that will take place in Lower Town Hall at 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday, March 14th and a formal public hearing to follow on April 17th (in advance of Town Meeting in May), three members of the Uxbridge Historic District Commission (UHDC) said their hope is that voters will not see the concept of “Preserve the Past; Enhance the Future” as stay-patters refusing to adapt and adjust.

Present at Cove Insurance Agency on North Main St. the morning of February 27th for a conversation about the suggested change to the bylaw were Faye McCloskey, Travis Do Rosario and Jane Keegan. All are or have been active in municipal life in various capacities. Ms. McCloskey chairs the UHDC, is secretary of the Uxbridge Historical Committee and a trustee of the Uxbridge Historical Society. Ms. Do Rosario is vice chairperson of the UHDC, clerk of the Uxbridge Housing Associates and vice chairperson of the 4th of July Committee. Ms. Keegan is retired from the Uxbridge Historical Society, retired as town moderator and a retired member of the Uxbridge School Committee.

The Savers Bank building, Cove Insurance’s building and 6 Court Street (home of the offices of Wickstrom Morse Attorneys) are examples of structures in the original historic district that have been successfully preserved.

Seated around a conference table in the offices of Michael Cove (who is an alternate with the UHDC), the women emphasized what they consider to be an important point—a staple indeed of the narrative the UHDC has developed; which is that “the environment in Uxbridge is not, and never was, intended to be homogenous, static or museum-like, and no such burden is imposed on homeowners or businesses today.”

Nevertheless, with three homes due to be lost to a Cumberland Farms six-bay gas/diesel station and 5000-square-foot convenience store at North Main and Hazel streets,” “we realized there was vulnerability to commercial creep,” the ever-feisty Ms. Keegan said. “We want to protect that end of town.” Towards that goal, part of the impetus of the bylaw change is to extend the historic district “from the crest of the hill” north of the traffic light at North Main St. and Douglas St. in Uxbridge Center to Hazel St. “on the west” and Homeward Ave. “on the east.”

The amended bylaw would also stretch the historic district on Mendon St. out to West River Rd. and Patrick Henry St., and incorporate all of Capron St. which is entirely residential with a number of fine dated Victorian and more recently built homes on both sides of the street heading toward the McCloskey Middle School (a building already destined to be “repurposed”). The Ironstone schoolhouse in South Uxbridge would be included as well if Town Meeting voters approve the amended bylaw.

The women assert that had an amended bylaw been in effect when the Cumberland Farms plan was brought forward “we would at least have had a say” in what is about to transpire at that site (ground for the project is expected to be broken this spring). “The whole idea,” they said, “is for development to blend in.” The bylaw amendment should be seen, then, as “a pro-active step”—not as an attempt to hold the fort.

The original bylaw addressed “the downtown core at North Main and South Main and adjacent side streets facing the Town Common along with a small portion of Mendon and Douglas streets,” UHDC informational literature says. The amended one would safeguard “gateways” to town and such historic sections as Wheelockville and the Central Woolen Mills District.

The Unitarian Church on No. Main St. in Uxbridge has fallen into disrepair and stands as evidence that the Uxbridge Historic District Commission, or UHDC, has been ineffective in carrying out its mission according to member Melissa Haskell.

It typifies the concern that always accompanies the fate of a bylaw change of this kind that two members of the UHDC—Marian Baker and Melissa Haskell—are opposed, according to Ms. McCloskey, Ms. Do Rosario and Ms. Keegan. Still, those in favor are optimistic that the amended bylaw will be approved. “If past Town Meeting votes are any indicator there is an appetite in town for preservation,” as they put it.

Mr. Cove agrees. The Cove family has lived preservation. His grandfather was an attorney in Uxbridge who owned the building where Harry’s Pizza is. “My father and uncles went into business and the three boys bought this building around 1988, 1989,” Mr. Cove said. “We renovated the whole thing. I grew up in an old house. We also own (the former) Jack’s.”

Mr. Cove is also a director with Savers Bank, which is situated in what was the Uxbridge Inn, “which was almost torn down” but now stands as a personification of preservation that enhances, rather than diminishes, a community’s soul.

“To me, being involved (in preservation) is a case of once it’s gone, it’s gone,” Mr. Cove said. “My building and Savers are perfect examples of that.”

Nor is the UHDC looking to impose unreasonable restrictions in terms of paint colors, for instance, he said.
“We are not the fashion police.”

Two homes facing No. Main St. and one behind them on Hazel St. in Uxbridge (in the area of Cote’s Collision & Customs) will give way when a Cumberland Farms gasoline station/convenience store is built.

In a telephone discussion and then by way of a follow-up email, Ms. Haskell (who, like Ms. Baker, lives in the original district, on North Main St.) told BV Xpress that her issue with the bylaw change is based on a belief that the UHDC is “not meeting its objectives now.” For that reason, the Commission shouldn’t be looking to broaden its horizons, she feels.

The UHDC “has existed since 2005,” Ms. Haskell said. Its stated mission is “to protect and preserve the distinct characteristics and architecture of the exterior of properties within the district.

“In the past thirteen years, the UHDC has not been able to effectively ʽprotect and preserve’ much in the district. In fact, the Unitarian Church (which houses the town clock, she noted) is in a state of advanced deterioration, along with other buildings, and the old 1938 fire station was allowed to be demolished without any argument from the UHDC. The UHDC is an ineffective body for the stated mission.”

Ms. Haskell went on to say “the UHDC exists only as a reactionary body that can deny or approve proposed exterior modifications. This could cause unnecessary delays for residents’ construction as UHDC signoff is needed prior to building-permit approval.

“We do no positive outreach, do not offer grant support, do not advocate for tax incentives or anything else which might assist property owners in the district in preserving, protecting and improving their properties.”

Ms. Haskell agreed that the bylaw change might pass at Town Meeting but noted that reaction from residents so far has been “borderline 50-50.”

Contact Rod Lee at [email protected] or 774-232-2999.