The complexities of coastal adaptation combined with little guidance from the federal government makes the problem of protecting historic districts from climate change all the more difficult.
To slow the rate of change and give archaeologists, historic preservationists and land managers more time to protect historic sites, carbon emissions must be reduced, according to last year’s UCS report. But even if we manage to reduce our carbon emissions, much of the change is already locked in, according to accepted science.
In Boston, where many properties are close to sea level and many areas were originally wetlands filled for development, the Harbor Association has suggested, among other things, that the city consider making room for the encroaching waters with canals and/or lagoons.
A 117-page study released in July 2013 entitled “Building Resilience in Boston: Best Practices for Climate Change Adaptation and Resilience for Existing Buildings” offers experts’ recommendations for property owners in preparing for emergencies related to climate change.
Many of the techniques that are available to protect properties and/or districts are costly and/or don’t mesh with historic-district rules. Elevating a home, for example, can cost upwards of $150,000, according to Crean. She noted that in The Point neighborhood of Newport, R.I., which has one of the highest concentrations of Colonial homes in the United States, some homeowners have elevated their property to get out of the flood zone.
“But then there’s the ongoing discussion on consistency and what historic district commissions will allow,” Crean said.
Across southern New England such discussions have already become heated. Like most issues related to climate change, it’s difficult for some to even admit there’s a problem. Add historic district to the equation, and the issue becomes even more complicated.
Two years ago, Newport banned wind turbines from most of the city. Local officials were particularly concerned about property owners erecting small turbines anywhere in the city’s historic neighborhoods.
That same City Council concern, however, didn’t transfer to the power lines that connect the old homes in these neighborhoods to utility poles, or to satellite-TV dishes.
Just like the debate, often heated, that surrounds what is allowed in these historic neighborhoods, the conversation about how to protect them from climate change will likely be even more contentious.
Among the issues that will likely be hotly debated will be septic systems. To see how divisive the issue of cesspool phaseout and connection to municipal sewer can be, look no further than Warwick, R.I.
Much of the public opposition there comes from homeowners who are concerned about cost. Others have said, incorrectly, that if a cesspool — which is nothing more than a perforated steel bucket buried in a shallow pit or a covered pit lined with unmortared brick or stone — is properly maintained it will last forever. Some opponents against having to connect to the city’s sewer system have called the idea a tax; others have called it extortion.
Similar opposition has been heard in other communities in the region, such as Portsmouth, R.I.
In North Kingstown, however, most of the town is scheduled to be sewered by 2017, but Wickford will not be, and property owners there will be required to upgrade failing septic systems, which are typically expensive projects.
“At what point do you allow properties to be occupied when you can’t flush a toilet?” Crean asked. “It’s another tough question we’re struggling with, to honor property rights and investments made and to protect public safety and health.”
There are homes in historic districts in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, such as Wickford, and Connecticut that can’t flush their toilets now after heavy rains, for fear of popping the caps off their inundated cesspools or septic tanks.
In fact, climate-change impacts will likely increase groundwater elevations in southern New England’s coastal areas, which could potentially impact underground infrastructure, such as septic tanks and cesspools, commonly found in historic districts.
Protecting the region’s historic properties from the rising waters of climate change will take planning, funding, compromise and sacrifice. It will be considerably more difficult than simply enacting a plastic shopping bag ban, and we’ve seen how punishing that endeavor has become.
Impacts to historical/cultural resources from climate change range from coastal erosion and storm damage to the effects of increased flooding, melting permafrost and more rapid deterioration because of changing rain and temperature patterns, according to the National Park Service.
To properly protect the country’s inventory of these resources, the federal agency has noted:
Cultural resources can’t be managed in isolation; natural resources and the surrounding landscape must be taken into account.
A national inventory and prioritization of vulnerable sites is needed to assess the uniqueness of these sites.
A time frame for adaptation strategies needs to established.
A resource in poor condition due to deferred maintenance or insufficient funding has a different kind of vulnerability.
There is no natural hierarchy or sequence for the criteria; they should be assessed as more of a matrix that will vary site to site.
To incorporate many of the possible solutions will likely require zoning changes and embracing best technologies. For instance, would municipal zoning and/or historic-district guidelines allow for the use of composting toilets? Would home owners be interested in installing them?
Also, utilities in most historic homes are in the basement and vulnerable to flooding. Where can they be moved to better withstand increased flooding that climate change is expected to cause?
Can solar panels and wind turbines be tastefully incorporated onto historic buildings? Will green roofs be allowed in historic districts?
“Zoning needs to catch up with new technologies and best practices,” Crean said. “But a lot of agencies aren’t even on the same page.”
As Crean noted during the October tour of Wickford Village, one thing is for sure, “The longer we wait to address this problem, the more expensive the solutions become.”
Both financially and culturally.