Editorial: National Register would be a boon for downtown

Many cringe when they hear the words “historic district.” And not without reason: Anecdotes abound about a family somewhere that was ruined after fire had gutted its business, but the insurance company wouldn’t cover the pricey cost of rebuilding with era-appropriate materials approved by some power-hungry historic committee. After years of appeals and frustration, the family is forced to walk away.

And while realtors might like to boast that an on-the-market house is in an historic district — and thus the would-be homeowner needn’t fear a gargantuan McMansion or a storage facility going up nearby — what that homeowner might fear most is having a new roof for the aging home cost a bundle.

None of these scenarios would play out if hundreds of buildings in Riverhead’s downtown area were added to the National Register of Historic Places, a move being pushed by Riverhead Town’s Landmarks Preservation Committee. Such a designation carries no restrictions on what property owners can or cannot do to their buildings. What the designation does do, however, is allow a landowner to qualify for a bounty in state and/or federal tax credits, should that person decide to rebuild the home or business using historically appropriate materials.

Work on commercial buildings within the district that are over 50 years old could land a building owner upwards of 40 percent in state and federal tax credits, meaning that a $1 million restoration job would result in $400,000 worth of rebate checks come tax time. As of now, there are no real incentives for someone who owns an early 20th century house downtown to restore it to its former glory. Too often, these houses fall into disrepair, fall into the hands of slumlords, or both.

Getting listed on the National Register of Historic Places is just another piece of the puzzle for downtown’s resurgence, not just for Main Street but also for the tributary blocks that are steeped in history and comprise a wide array of interesting architecture that, with some incentive, can be preserved.

As we report on page 19, officials with the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation toured the downtown area this week to advise town officials as they move forward with a proposal to the state to add the downtown area to the National Register. But no decision will be made without public hearings and a vote from area property and business owners. All who care about downtown Riverhead should attend these hearings and support the measure.

Downtown has nothing to lose, and everything to gain.