After much around-town scuttlebutt, the decision has been made — the Safe Harbor Shelburne Shipyard will maintain its historic status.
During an April 22 meeting of the state’s council for historic preservation, a motion was unanimously passed to create a new “Shelburne Shipyard Historic District.”
The size of the district, which could include the shipyard and nearby homes, is still unknown. It will be the town’s third of its kind.
State architectural historian Devin Colman said the advisory council staff decided the shipyard should stay on Vermont’s list of historic places, too, after a review was triggered by a review of the site from owner Safe Harbor Marinas.
Safe Harbor purchased the shipyard in 2019 and hired historic preservation consultant Scott Newman to survey the site in case the company wants to make renovations to improve its operation, according to Newman’s survey reporting.
Increased size, longer history
Shelburne Historical Society’s president Dorothea Penar felt encouraged, because the historic preservation council had moved to increase the size of the historic area and the length of its historical significance.
In Newman’s survey the history of the shipyard extends from 1820-1966, but council members argued the shipyard’s historic significance endures today because it is still being used as a shipyard and a marina.
Penar said the next step for the town is to update its own survey of Shelburne’s historic sites.
Shelburne is a certified local government, she said, and that designation qualifies it for certain state grants which require periodic surveys to maintain an inventory of the town’s historic resources.
The shipyard would become the town’s third historic district, Penar said. The Falls Road Historic District was recently added to the national register of historic places, joining the Shelburne Village Historic District.
If the area of the shipyard becomes a historic district, it gives the town more control because property owners get tax breaks for following Act 250 restrictions, Penar said.
The area is also a valuable piece of property, more valuable than the historic buildings that are on it, she said.
Member of the council David Donath agreed, “That is an awfully attractive piece of real estate for development.”
He said the historic property could be developed like the cheap apartment he lived in during college on Shelburne Point near the shipyard which was turned into a $250,000 condominium.
Historic sites will continue to be demolished unless property owners are rewarded for protecting historic resources, Penar said.
Though the obvious question is how a town benefits financially when an area is named a historic district, Colman said. “It’s not about money; it’s about understanding our history.”
It helps to understand a town by knowing its development patterns over time. For example, he said, Shelburne began near Shelburne Falls because of the waterfalls that provided power for early industry.
Then the town moved away from the falls closer to the railroad when that became the center of commerce.
Preserving historic districts is a “way of understanding why the world we live in is the way it is,” Colman said.
All that stands between getting the shipyard onto the state registry as a historic district is getting forms filled out, he said.
In contrast, getting it onto the national register as a historic district may take about seven months.
“Once you have done documentation and listing is done, it can have legs, if you will, into other promotional activities, tax credits, so it’s kind of the starting point for any number of other projects for a community,” Colman said.
A historic district is not necessarily just old homes or buildings; there usually are some newer buildings in a historic district. Colman said he didn’t know of any districts that were 100 percent old.
Penar said much of the value of having historic designations is because it is part of what people love about a town.
People in Shelburne appreciate and treasure historic resources. Years ago, the town decided it valued its history and made it part of Shelburne’s town plan, she said.
When you ask someone what they love about Shelburne, they mention such things as the historic barns, old houses and the small human scale of the buildings, Penar said.
Because Shelburne values this small-town historical feeling, when the town built the affordable housing of the Harrington Village, she said, the historic preservation and design review commission worked to keep a historical smaller scale in the new buildings there.
“We tried to keep that village feeling in the village,” Penar said.