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January 22. 2014 12:10AM

Town historians make preservation strategy

LANCASTER — About two dozen volunteers, most with local historical societies, met with Maggie Stier from the N.H. Preservation Alliance at the Weeks Memorial Library Saturday to talk about saving a town's history.

The program, "Who's Taking Care of Your Town's History," featured representatives from historical societies in Berlin, Dalton, Franconia, Jefferson, Lancaster, Lisbon and Whitefield.

Historical societies today, Stiers said, are facing a number of challenges, including shrinking audiences, building maintenance, getting and keeping volunteers, meeting standards for collection care, getting funds for acquisition and conservation of materials, and access to and use of computer- and web-based systems.Landscapes and buildings are at risk and village centers are losing their vitality, particularly in the North Country, because there aren't enough models around showing how to reuse old buildings, Stier said. People see their land as their nest egg, their retirement.

"There is a public benefit to keeping towns the way they are, the way that attracted you to them in the first place," Stier said. "We have to find a way to balance preservation with property rights."

She urged attendees to be open to new ways of doing things."Don't assume that systems in place now are the best they could be. By nature, we're historians, we think how things have always been done as the best way, and we're losing people."There was a lot of discussion about the lack of interest by local people, and why.There didn't seem to be an easy answer to getting locals interested and involved.

Stier said programs are usually the best way to get people in. When people come to the museum, ask why they're there. Ask others why they don't come. Ask people to become members, she suggested.

The structures in a town are important for a number of reasons, Stier said. They provide a sense of place and pride, neighborhood identity and attract tourism.

Driving through a town can provide a lot of information about its past. If there are falls, there were probably mills.

A row of similar houses was probably housing for mill workers. A train station probably meant it was a transportation hub.

"A town that loses evidence of this is all the poorer," Stiers said.

There are a number of tools that can help a town with preservation, including a municipal master plan, historical resources survey, a demolition review ordinance, designation on the state or national Register of Historic Places, heritage districts, zoning and tax incentives.

Tax incentives would help, for example, an owner of a barn, to restore it without an increase in valuation.

They also work to help restore downtowns.

There are new tools coming as well. Neighborhood heritage districts are regulatory, but usually less stringent, and form-based codes regulate the shape of buildings."You have to know what you want to save," Stier said. "You can't save everything."


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