Home at 3 Rosemary Street c1880-1890, from “Images of America, Needham”/ Credit: Needham Historical Society

Town Meeting may vote tonight to create the town’s first historic district — the Jonathan Kingsbury House Local Historic District. It would include just one property, the double lot at 3 Rosemary St., currently owned and occupied by Moe and Elizabeth Handel. 

If the article passes, the Handels and any future owners would lose the right to make certain exterior renovations. The Handels themselves were the first proponents of these restrictions. “It’s a dream long held,” Handel said. 

The intent of the article is to preserve the Handels’ 1779 farmhouse close to its original state. The historic district would restrict current and future owners from making changes to the exterior that are visible from the street. 

“We know given the current market, whomever we sell this house to is likely to tear it down and build something else,” Handel said. He said it is the oldest standing house in Needham Heights.

The Handels initiated this process, which could not have been done without them, as state law requires homeowner participation to create a historic district. 

Handel said he hopes this move will set a precedent for how others in Needham can protect their historic properties.

Currently, there is a six-month demolition delay that applies to some properties, but according to Handel, “It has no teeth.”

2017 drone shot of 3 Rosemary Street/ Credit: Sam Handel

The warrant item was reviewed and endorsed by the Select Board and must now pass Town Meeting by a two-thirds vote. A yes vote would create a commission to oversee this historic district. It would be the culmination of a long and complex process set by state law. 

Alison Borrelli, a real estate agent at Berkshire Hathaway Home Services Commonwealth Real Estate in Needham, chaired the Single Parcel Historic District Study Committee that created the proposal. “The commission cannot govern the interior of the structure, architectural features not visible from a public way, or grade level structures such as driveway or walkways,” she said.

Roofing material, landscaping and paint color would also be beyond the commission’s authority. “If we want to paint the house purple, we can,” Handel said. 

Gloria Greis, executive director of the Needham History Center & Museum, pointed out that this is a much looser restriction than in a place such as Concord Center, where the town’s economy depends on its colonial image. “We deliberately tried to have a fairly light footprint,” she said. 

“In historic districts, there’s an understanding that houses have to evolve for modern living,” Borrelli said. 

Solar panels facing the street would probably have to get the commission’s approval, for example, but that wouldn’t be necessary with a ventilation unit that isn’t visible from the street or with an EV charging port, Greis explained. 

According to Borrelli, more than 100 communities in Massachusetts already have historic districts, and single-home districts are common. She said Somerville has more than 260 single-parcel local historic districts.

Noncontiguous districts are also common. “If you have four homes in a row, and one doesn’t want to be part of the district, you just remove them from it,” Borrelli said.

“You’re not going to get trapped into this bylaw,” Greis said. “This is something that will happen cooperatively and collaboratively. It is not something that is imposed on anyone.” 

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