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Bill would give N.H. towns, cities new tool to help preserve historical buildings

The Senate will vote this week on legislation that would give New Hampshire’s towns and cities a little more flexibility to encourage the preservation and rehabilitation of historical buildings.

The bill would expand an existing program, known as RSA 79-E, which allows local governments to grant temporary property-tax relief as an incentive for specific projects in downtown areas.

If it passes, the program would expand to include historically important structures outside a downtown district.

“It’s one more tool for municipalities to opt into if they want, and to help projects that meet these intersecting goals of community development, historic preservation and energy efficiency,” said Jennifer Goodman, executive director of the New Hampshire Preservation Alliance.

The bill was introduced by Sen. David Watters, a Dover Democrat, and endorsed last week on a 3-1 vote by the Senate Ways and Means Committee.

The full Senate is scheduled to vote Thursday on the bill.

The incentives are only available in communities that specifically adopt the 79-E program, which requires a vote at town meeting or by the city or town council.

It’s then up to the local governing body – typically the city council or the selectmen – to decide whether to extend incentives to specific projects when they apply.

Only building replacements or “substantial rehabilitation” projects, which cost at least $75,000 or 15 percent of the pre-project property valuation (whichever is less), are eligible.

If the incentive is approved for a building that is being rehabilitated or replaced, the community would continue to tax the property at its old assessment for a set period of time, without counting any increase in value as a result of the project.

If Watters’s bill passes, that incentive also could be applied to rehabilitation projects on buildings outside a designated downtown area, as long as they are listed on, or eligible for, the National Register of Historic Places or the State Register of Historic Places.

“If they wanted to extend those benefits to properties, they could,” Watters said.

Goodman worked with Watters on the bill, which is co-sponsored by an additional four senators and two representatives, including both Republicans and Democrats.

“It’s building on a very effective program that’s in use in close to 20 cities and towns across the state,” Goodman said.

The 79-E program began in 2006, and Concord is among the communities that has adopted it.

Watters said his bill also aims to encourage energy efficiency and would introduce the concept of “embodied energy,” a recognition of the energy used to build a structure in the first place, into state law.

“The idea is that if you don’t tear the house down, you’re preserving the energy that was previously used. . . . It would be good to have that concept acknowledged as a rationale for preserving historic buildings,” Watters said.

(Ben Leubsdorf can be reached at 369-3307 or or on Twitter @BenLeubsdorf.)

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