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Century-old Amherst barn’s demise inevitable

Sometimes historic buildings become just that — history.

And sometimes that fate is simply inevitable.

While historic preservation efforts are to be commended in cases where history is saved, we question whether sparing a century-old barn at 290 Lincoln Ave. from the wrecking ball would have done much to preserve Amherst’s history.

While some neighbors believe that Amherst lost a piece of itself when the barn came down last week, the Historical Commission isn’t so sure. The commission studied the barn and took testimony from both sides in September before unanimously agreeing that the structure is not historically significant, despite its reported connections to Robert Frost.

That ruling meant property owner You-Pan Tzeng could move ahead with demolition plans immediately rather than face a one-year delay.

The home and barn on Lincoln Avenue were built in the early 1900s by Warren Brown, an Amherst businessman and author. Brown was a friend to Frost, but there was no indication the barn was used as an artist’s studio until claims were made by a real estate agent selling the property in the last year.

The commission correctly ruled that friendship with Frost was not enough to justify declaring the barn historically significant.

That said, the town could have done a better job communicating with residents who expressed concerns last week about the barn’s imminent demise.

Many of those residents, through a group called the Coalition of Amherst Neighborhoods, filed an appeal of the building commissioner’s decision to grant a demolition permit. That appeal should have at least delayed the demolition until the Zoning Board of Appeals weighed in.

To hold a hearing after the fact seems a waste of time, as would ordering Tzeng to rebuild the structure on the site or fining Tzeng. Many of those residents note that the process erodes their confidence in the way town government functions. That’s a fair complaint. After 100 years, a few more weeks would not have caused Tzeng irreparable harm.

In the end, chances are good that the barn would have come down one way or another. The town’s demolition delay bylaw can’t keep a property owner from tearing down a building — it can only postpone it — unless that owner or another group is willing to find an alternative site for the structure.

Beyond history, the razing of the barn stoked fears among some neighbors that Tzeng might have plans to develop more student rental housing in its place — something that neighbors speculate but that Tzeng has not applied for.

What a property owner might do with property in the future is not relevant when trying to determine a building’s historical significance. What’s at issue here is the barn’s history, not the makeup of an entire neighborhood.

The Historical Commission got this one right, even if some members took the owner to task over his decision to demolish the barn because of the adverse effect on the visual character of the neighborhood.

There’s a far bigger issue at play here than one barn on one piece of property, an issue that will generate considerable discussion at the town’s fall Town Meeting set to begin next week. That’s when residents will debate a zoning amendment that would restrict the rental of single-family homes, a measure being floated to help deal with an increasing number of properties being converted to off-campus housing for college students.

The measure would require a special permit from the ZBA if a property owner chooses to rent to a group of up to four unrelated housemates. Another measure requiring rental permit regulations is expected to be presented at the annual Town Meeting next spring.

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