MIDDLETOWN — Soon Middletown property owners willing to complete at least $15,000 of restoration work on a historic structure could qualify for up to 10 years of full or partial property tax abatements.
The Middletown Common Council last week voted unanimously to approve the program.
Middletown Director of Planning, Conservation and Development Joe Samolis said he’s wanted to set up this kind of program ever since he started working for the city. Samolis previously worked at the State Historic Preservation Office.
“I was well aware of the federal aid programs that were available for the general public to use [for preserving historic buildings], but change really happens at the local level,” Samolis said.
State statute allows municipalities to offer abatements, said Samolis, but some towns are put off by the possible effects of taking properties off the tax rolls for up to 10 years. He said that each application would require approval from the Common Council, and that the amount of the abatement would be determined individually for each project.
“There is no way to quantify it since each property is different and the project costs will be different,” Samolis said. “The council will have to determine if the cost of the reduction of the tax rolls is proportionate to the salvaging of each historic structure.”
Samolis said that historic preservation was a common concern of many residents who commented during the drafting of the city’s new plan of conservation and development last year. That public input spurred him to start the process of getting the tax abatement program running, he said.
The plan of conservation and development, meant to guide development in Middletown over the next decade, lists tax incentives to preserve historic buildings for new uses as a priority. Preservation is the “ultimate recycling,” according to text in the town plan, which highlights the architectural benefits of buildings on Main Street, which over three centuries were designed to be compact, suitable for cold winters and humid summers, and to make the most of natural light.
The town plan also encourages new uses for vacant buildings, and for amending zoning rules to allow for more flexibility in adapting buildings for reuse, and to encourage improvements for energy efficiency in older buildings.
“Sometimes people feel that historic buildings can’t be sustainable or energy efficient, and that’s not necessarily true,” Samolis said. “There are just different techniques in order to achieve those goals.”
Samolis said any rehab would have to follow federal standards. Typically, windows would need to be refurbished with the same materials and salvage as much of the original materials and design as possible. Vinyl windows, for example, would not be acceptable in most cases, he said.
Councilwoman Jeanette Blackwell, who proposed the plan to the Common Council after collaboration with Samolis, the Economic Development Commission and the City Historian, said the program is meant to attract investment to Middletown’s historic properties, both from current owners and by drawing new investors into town. She said it was essential to have accountability measures to make sure the properties are actually rehabilitated.
The renovations can’t destroy the building’s architectural or historical value, and the owner must keep up with all of their other tax payments, or else the city can cancel the abatement and order the owner to pay back taxes that would have been owed, plus interest. The city can also cancel an abatement if the project isn’t started or completed.
“It’s an opportunity we hope will draw investors, but it was really vital that we also made sure there was a level of, ‘You’re going to do this, we want to make sure that we hold you accountable,’” Blackwell said.
Samolis said the program can be used for any buildings that meet the requirement of having been designated a historic structure by either the state or national Register of Historic Places, by being within a recognized Historical District, or by being designated a property of local significance by the city.
To qualify for an abatement, the owner has to demonstrate to the city that the property taxes are a “material factor” threatening the existence of the building, and that the property would need to be demolished or remodeled in a way that destroys its historic or architectural value if an abatement wasn’t given.
Samolis said the program could be used for residential, commercial or industrial buildings as long as they meet the criteria, but he expects the credit will mainly be used for residential buildings given the stock of historic buildings in Middletown. Samolis said the property owners in the neighborhoods around downtown may have the most use for the credits.
“North Main Street, there’s a lot of houses back there, a great neighborhood where I think this incentive could be utilized by people of all incomes,” Samolis said. “It really can benefit the average homeowner who has a property in the North End that may be deemed historic, to be able to take advantage of it to rehab their building.”
Samolis said the areas along the edges of Wesleyan University – which the city refers to as the downtown village district – and Main Street also contain a significant number of historic buildings that could benefit from the program.
Applications for the abatement program could be available as soon as April 21, Samolis said.
Image credit Google Map Data, 2021