North Williston may be designated historic district

Area around former railroad depot settled in 1800s

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

Town planners have proposed creating a historic district in North Williston, a change that would help sustain the area’s character by imposing rules governing building renovation and construction.

The district would comprise about 290 acres and include parts of North Williston Road, Chapman Lane and Fay Lane. It would largely follow the boundaries of the existing state historic district.

Zoning Administrator D.K. Johnston said the idea of creating a second historic district in Williston – a portion of the village has long held the designation – came about after a new subdivision was proposed for the area.

Mike and Dan Fontaine want to build a 49-unit development called Settlers Village on part of the 293 acres of land they own in North Williston.

“We felt the best way keep consistency with what’s already there is to have it all be designed under a new historic district’s rules,” Johnston said.

The proposal is still being developed, so few specifics were available. But Johnston said that the rules for North Williston could be similar to those governing the village’s historic district.

Homeowners and businesses within the village who want to alter an existing building and construct a new one must complete an application. The application is reviewed by the Historic and Architectural Advisory Committee.

Then the Development Review Board decides whether to issue a certificate of appropriateness. If approved, the property owner must then apply for a zoning/building permit.

The rules apply to new structures as well as alterations to existing buildings, such as additions and decks. Johnston said the rules do not govern interior changes or exterior maintenance like painting or new roofs.

There are pros and cons to historic districts, Johnston said. Property owners who want to make major changes to structures must get the town’s permission, he said. But it also means your neighbor can’t do something out of character with the neighborhood.

“So you know your environment and views are protected from something inappropriate,” Johnston said.

Marianne Riordan, who lives at the corner of North Williston Road and Fay Lane, said she knew little about the proposal and so had not formed an opinion.

But Riordan, who lives in a home built in 1855, worries the town may impose rules mandating historically correct renovations that could make it much more expensive – or even impossible – for her to repair her home.

“If you have a house in the historic district that requires something, what if they don’t make it anymore?” she wondered.
North Williston is among the longest-settled parts of town. The area boomed following completion of a Central Vermont Railroad depot in 1850, according to a summary of the town’s history in Williston’s 2000 Comprehensive Plan.

The railroad allowed farmers to ship products to markets. The area eventually included a post office and a general store. A cold storage plant, which included one of the country’s first commercial refrigerators, was built in 1876, according to “The Williston Story,” a book by F. Kennon Moody and Floyd D. Putnam.

But development shifted back to Williston’s geographic center in the 1900s as roads were paved and electric power was installed. The flood of 1927 washed out miles of railroad track and signaled the beginning of the end for business activity in North Williston.

The area now has numerous historic homes and a few farms, one of which is owned by the Fontaines. Most of the properties in the proposed local historic district are listed in the state’s historic district.

That designation, however, is largely symbolic, Johnston said, because the state does not have authority to regulate local residential construction or renovation.

The Historic and Architectural Advisory Committee is scheduled to discuss the new historic district at its meeting on Tuesday, June 5 at Williston Town Hall. The discussion is scheduled to begin at 7 p.m.

The process of approving a new historic district is similar to that of processing a rezoning case, Johnston said. A total of four public hearings must be held before the Planning Commission and the Selectboard.

Those meetings have yet to be scheduled. Johnston said all property owners within the proposed district will be notified when hearing dates are set.