Rural Historic District – Calais

Case Studies

Rural Historic District – Calais

Community overview

Calais is a rural town in Washington County about 12 miles northeast of Montpelier.  Like many towns in north-central Vermont, Calais reached its population peak in the first half of the nineteenth century.  Consequently, the town has a large number of historic structures, particularly in the several unincorporated villages and hamlets that are scattered across town.  Calais is also home to a number of important Vermont institutions, including the Adamant Cooperative Store (Vermont’s oldest retail cooperative), the East Calais Country Store, and the Kents Corner Museum.

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Kents Corner Historic District Guidelines (2008)

Kents Corner is one of three unincorporated villages in Calais.  The town has had design guidelines for Kents Corner since the mid-1970s, when area residents conducted extensive historic inventory work in preparation for the bicentennial.  In 1976, it was the first place in Vermont to be designated as a state rural historic district.  The designation was in recognition of the fact that the district’s numerous historic structures define the look and feel of the area, and although there are a number of non-historic properties in the  district, they are largely compatible with the area’s historic character.  As a consequence, Kents Corner is one of the best examples of a rural 19th century crossroads community left in Vermont.

Both the first version of the historic design guidelines and a second one that followed a few years later focused only on properties within about a quarter-mile radius of the Kents Corner crossroads, an area with a strong shared sense of place and a number of significant structures.  However, the standards were too vague for a volunteer board to implement consistently, which resulted in at least one project being approved that many feel is not consistent with the intent of the district.

When the guidelines were revised in 2006 as part of an update for the National Register of Historic Places, they were expanded and altered in several significant respects.  First, the district was expanded to incorporate several road corridors leading into Kents Corner, with the longest leg extending over a mile from the crossroads.  Second, the new guidelines included a number of illustrations, with the goal of clarifying both what kinds of documentation were required of applicants and what design features and considerations were acceptable in applications.  Finally, the structure of the guidelines was streamlined and reorganized, with a professional layout to make the guidelines more readable and user friendly.

In adopting the guidelines, the community’s goal was to ensure that the important historic buildings in the district were preserved and that new construction in the district did not visually detract from the older structures, not to require that new buildings be designed to look as if they were 150 years old.  Therefore, the emphasis throughout the process was on historic compatibility rather than historic replication.

As currently written, the guidelines are organized into three main sections:

  • An overview of the design review and permit procedure
  • An explanation of the criteria that are used to evaluate proposed projects
  • A description of the architecture of representative buildings in the district

At the heart of the review process for projects proposed within the historic district is a meeting and site visit with a special town committee called the Design Advisory Board.  This body is charged with assessing projects for compatibility with the guidelines, working with the applicant to incorporate needed changes, and making a recommendation to the Development Review Board (DRB).  As with projects outside the district, the legal authority to issue or deny a permit resides with the DRB, which generally follows the Advisory Board’s recommendations.

The decision to create a parallel advisory body that reports to the DRB rather than incorporate detailed standards into the town’s zoning bylaw was a crucial one, as it keeps the process flexible enough that it can respond to designs and ideas that might be excluded under a more prescriptive approach.  Giving the Design Advisory Board broad latitude to determine whether a given project is in keeping with the overall intent of the guidelines makes sense given Calais’ (and the district’s) relatively small size, as this approach requires that the Board pay a good deal of personal attention to applications.

It is important to note that even though the guidelines are intentionally broad, they contain many specific examples and concrete details.  This provides both the Design Advisory Board and applicants with a clear standard to follow.  The key to the success of the guidelines comes from the fact that they reflect the desires and goals of the residents of the district.  Calais’ experience makes it clear that design guidelines are most effective when they simply put what most of the people in the district would do anyway into writing.

Lessons Learned

  1. Pay as much attention to the process of creating the standards as to the final product.  Especially for a historic district, it is essential that people who live within the district feel a strong sense of ownership of the standards by having initiated and participated integrally in the process of developing them.
  2. Aim for historic compatibility, not historic replication.  Unless a community’s goal is to turn itself into an historic theme park, it is sufficient simply to require that new structures, site layout, and landscaping be quietly harmonious with their historic context.Integrate historic district review with the regular development review process.  The goal should be to enrich the review process, not lengthen it.  Think of the design review process as an extra helping hand for applicants, working with them in preparation for the DRB hearing so as to address any issues up front.

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