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Couple: Window spat with state cost them $400,000

Sunday News Correspondent
By Dave Solomon
New Hampshire Union Leader

January 14. 2018 2:03PM
Patty and Peter Cooke are shown in front of the Pickering House in Wolfeboro, which they saved from the wrecking ball and are restoring into an upscale inn and gathering place. (Bea Lewis/Sunday News Correspondent)

CONCORD - A Wolfeboro couple testified last week that stringent enforcement of federal standards by the N.H. Division of Historic Resources has cost them some $400,000 in tax credits as they try to rehab a historic home.

Peter and Patty Cooke's plight compelled Sen. Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, to introduce a bill that if passed would preclude the division from establishing preservation criteria that are more severe than federal guidelines.

The Cookes have been stymied in their efforts to qualify for federal historic tax credits to help offset some of the more than $1 million they are spending to preserve and rehabilitate an 1813 home and attached barn at 18 Main St. in Wolfeboro.

"There is a beautiful old building right on the edge of downtown that had it not been for the Cooke family that building would have been razed," Bradley said during a Thursday committee hearing on Senate Bill 326.

The Federal Historic Tax Incentives program is designed to encourage private sector investment in the rehabilitation and re-use of historic buildings. But New Hampshire hasn't enjoyed as much investment as its New England neighbors. In New Hampshire, only 18 projects have attained final certification by the National Park Service from 2002 to 2016 compared to Maine's 84 and Massachusetts' 452. Over that same span, the Granite State has enjoyed $122 million in development from those projects while Massachusetts has seen $4 billion in investment, according to the National Park Service (see chart below).

Nationwide in 2016, more than $5.85 billion in private investment occurred through the rehabilitation of commercial historic properties under the Federal Historic Preservation Tax Program. Since the program's inception in 1976, $84.15 billion has been invested to preserve nearly 43,000 historic properties across the country.

Elizabeth Muzzey, director of the Division of Historic Resources, testified that the National Park Service is responsible for establishing program criteria and for certifying that projects meet federal regulations.

"The DHR has not established any state-level criteria for this program, and lacks the authority to do so," she said.

According to the federal guidelines, standards should be applied to rehabilitation projects "in a reasonable manner, taking into consideration economic and technical feasibility."

But the Cookes maintain that at the state level the guidelines are being enforced in black and white, with no room for gray, even when it appears to be at odds with reasonable alternatives.

"Whether or not that's the reviewer's personal preference is where the issues arise," said Peter Cooke.

The guidelines say deteriorated historic features are to be repaired rather than replaced, but in cases where the severity of deterioration requires replacement of a distinctive feature, it can be replaced as long as it matches the old in design, color, texture, and other visual qualities and, where possible, materials.

As an example, the Cookes, after retaining a window restoration expert, had planned to install 85 historically accurate new windows and have eight others that were in better condition as they had been shielded by the porch roof, restored at a cost of $3,200 each. 

"It is a very expensive process," said Peter Cooke at the hearing. "We spent in excess of $20,000 in consulting fees and application fees. Our experience is that the review at the state level we found to be not only not helpful but obstructionist; what it comes down to is there are park service standards that have been alluded to, but the key provision within those standards asks you to replace in kind if you can, whether it be windows, siding or whatever."

"We found a pretty negative reception for the things we wanted to do. When you look at NPS standards, the overall qualifier is, is it economically feasible, and the challenge we have is what is the definition of feasible. How far do you take it? We have 93 windows in that building. We had an assessment done that windows need to be replaced. We got pushback from the department in terms of whether or not that was true or not, and that's what it comes down to," Cooke said.

Patty Cooke said they planned to use Pella Architect Series Reserve windows that were designed in consultation with the National Park Service and mimic historic window details with butt joinery, authentic profile depths and and exterior putty glaze, offering great energy efficiency.

The response from the State Historic Preservation Office, Cooke said, was that if they could restore eight windows they could do the same for the other 85.

A similar dispute arose regarding the fence that rimmed the front yard. Each of the wooden balusters were stripped of layers of paint. Veteran carpenters who routinely work on historic preservation projects counseled that top and bottom rails would take the brunt of the weather and would need to be replaced most likely within five years. The Cookes had planned to contract with a company that could make rails that matched the same profile of the originals, using a rot-resistant material, that even has the texture of wood, but they were told the proposed switch wouldn't pass muster with the state.

"Is it possible to restore windows for $3,000 a window, yes. It's possible. Is it feasible? No. We were not proposing to replace them with some vinyl clad cheaper window. Our biggest frustration was that we had local New Hampshire-based consultants who were concerned about not being able to push forward our project," Peter Cooke testified.

"We want to make sure we are not enforcing standards to the letter of perfection to the point that a project becomes uneconomic, and had it not been for Mr. and Mrs. Cooke, downtown Wolfeboro would be changed. They decided to proceed without this tax credit but it left a sour taste in my mouth that it's not even the federal requirements, but the requirements of the department are so stringent they could never be fulfilled," Bradley said.

"Word gets around that overzealous requirements will lead to unexpected outcomes, and buildings will get torn down. We want to comply with the National Park Service regulations, we want to be helpful to applicants and we want to be creative and innovative in complying with those guidelines," he testified.

Muzzey told lawmakers during the hearing on Senate Bill 326 that more than $168,900,000 of investment in the state's historic infrastructure has been completed with preservation tax credits with 75 percent of those projects completed in the past 10 years. Nine more tax credit projects are now underway that collectively represent a total estimated investment of nearly $65 million and eight additional projects have recently joined the program.

According to Muzzey, for the last 12 completed projects in New Hampshire, her office helped applicants secure 59 approvals from the NPS. For the 17 projects now underway, the DHR has helped applicants obtain 41 NPS approvals. It is a multi-step process to attain final NPS certification.

"As a taxpayer and constituent, you hope that when you come to a state agency that they will be your advocate. If the solution has been approved in another state on another project, that's what the standard is now," said Cooke.

"As much as I appreciate the legislation and hope it sends a message, we are trying to legislate attitude, which is difficult. This is our first project, and will probably be our last. Looking around and asking around, we found it's a common thing. Anecdotally, I hear these stories of where personal preferences of reviewers get in the way of making some of these projects happen."

"Over the last five or six years, we are dwarfed by the amount of projects being done in other states. Vermont does three or four times the number. We have $66 million in projects here, while Massachusetts has $1.2 billion.

"We are missing a great opportunity here, especially in a state that doesn't have the ability to offer a lot of economic incentives to do anything," Cooke testified during the hearing.

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