Gaston & Catawba

In Belmont, preserving historic charm a focal point

A Belmont committee is exploring whether the city should move to further protect properties in a historic district in and around downtown.

The district, including 45 blocks and more than 250 historically significant buildings, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. But such a designation does not ensure their preservation, leaving open the possibility that they could face significant changes and even demolition.

“If they want to tear that building down, there’s nothing to stop them,” Lucy Penegar, vice chairwoman of the Gaston County Historic Preservation Commission.

Among the options the city-appointed committee is weighing is creating a historic preservation commission that would oversee any locally designated historic districts and landmarks, requiring that they meet certain standards. The commission also could decide to take no further action.

All nominations of properties for historic designation are overseen by the county preservation commission, requiring public hearings and subject to state review. The county recommends those nominated as historic landmarks receive permission from their owners.

The committee is scheduled to meet with Belmont officials at a regular meeting on Dec. 1. A decision is expected by the end of January, said Assistant City Manager Adrian Miller.

In the meantime, the committee appears split about the extent the city should oversee historic preservation. Made up of four residents, it aims to strike a balance between preserving historic buildings and protecting the rights of property owners.

“It’s a complicated issue,” said Alex Robinson, a senior planner for Belmont.

The discussion is taking place as the city is expected to further revise its land-use plan for the downtown area that would, among other things, loosen zoning restrictions to encourage business activity.

Preserving historic buildings can prove challenging, involving costly renovations that are subject to strict building standards.

To help encourage owners to maintain them, tax incentives are available.

Properties on the National Register are eligible for federal and state income tax credits for historic rehabilitation. Three North Carolina historic tax credits are set to expire by year’s end, though the General Assembly could consider restoring them next year. And those designated as local landmarks could qualify for a 50 percent reduction in property taxes.

But beyond that, such designations stop short of ensuring the structures will remain standing.

Properties on the National Register are not protected from demolition. And while there are more protections for locally designated historic districts and landmarks, the county preservation commission can only delay the demolition of those properties by one year.

Discussions about whether the city should further protect its historic buildings goes back a couple of years, though it came to the fore late last year after leaders approved a controversial rezoning request to turn one of the oldest homes in Belmont into a jewelry store.

The two-story home, across North Main Street from a number of businesses, was built in the late 1800s and is in the federally designated historic district. Its owner did agree to a number of conditions, including landscaping requirements.

Earlier this year, a recently formed historic preservation nonprofit requested the city consider ways to further preserve the many houses in the district that stand as charming reminders of a bygone era.

“We want to protect that character,” said David Hostetler II, founding chairman of the Historic Belmont Foundation.

For its part, the county preservation commission is working to designate more historic landmarks. But it is underfunded, Penegar said, operating with only $5,000 from the county each year and relying largely on volunteers.

“We’ve got a list,” she said of a backlog of some 50 properties that have applied for historic status.

In addition to their historical significance, the county preservation commission recommends buildings for historic designation based on the condition of their exterior. The idea is to preserve their original facade, so they offer a “history lesson from the street,” Penegar said.

Awaiting such historic status is an old train station along the Piedmont North Railway. The abandoned railway played a major role in the development of Belmont, used to haul freight to supply the once-prominent textile industry and carry passengers to and from Charlotte.

After changing hands a number of times during the years, the station now is home to a bike shop that opened earlier this year. It has remained without a historic designation.

The city is expected to approve a resolution at its Dec. 1 meeting requesting that the county designate the train station a local landmark. “We were surprised,” said Steven Pepitone, the owner of the bike shop, South Main Cycles.

Besides the appeal of property tax relief, he suggested that the designation is long overdue.

“It just seems like the right thing to do,” Pepitone said.