Historic preservation is a mixed bag in Summit — “lots of places have disappeared.”
March 19, 2017
Back in the 1970s, "spring cleaning" had a different meaning in Breckenridge: It referred to the practice of sprucing up the town by tearing down the old log cabin houses that had stood there for nearly a century.
At the time, local historian Maureen Nicholls said, people didn't see historic preservation as a priority — they were more interested in shedding the town's mining heritage and building up its new identity as a ski town.
"Back then if someone bought a property and there was a building on it they tore it down," Nicholls said. "Some of the buildings were pretty derelict, but I think that would've shocked some people in the town now. It was commended at the time."
As Breckenridge and the rest of Summit County have developed, however, the importance of preserving vestiges of the area's hardscrabble origins has taken on urgency among some locals.
An example of that came late last year in Frisco, when a proposed hotel on Main Street that would have required moving the historic Staley-Rouse House to a new location sparked outcry from residents, who argued that the town's last historic structure in its original spot should stay there.
After a series of contentious public meetings, the town revised the terms of the deal to keep the house on its current plot — although it will be moved closer to the street.
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It's unclear if that will be grounds for removing the house from the state register of historic places, town staff said.
Carrots versus sticks
Had the original deal gone through, it would have been in keeping with Frisco's longstanding, laissez-faire approach to historic preservation.
Throughout building boom ins the 1980s and 1990s, 10 of Frisco's original structures were donated to the town and moved to the Frisco Historic Park and Museum in order to make way for new development. Many others were simply razed.
A full accounting of what has been lost is difficult to come by, because unlike Breckenridge — which has created an inventory of historic buildings throughout the town — Frisco doesn't keep a list of its historic assets.
That contrast reflects the two towns' very different approaches to historic preservation: Frisco doesn't need to keep a list of original buildings because there aren't any regulations in place restricting what owners can do with them, town staff said.
In Breckenridge, on the other hand, the 232 historic structures listed in its inventory lie within a nationally recognized historic district. Design standards established in 1992 limit what property owners can do to those structures and what they can build around them.
"The most important standards in the historic district have to do with the size of buildings: height, façade width, square footage," said community development director Peter Grosshuesch. "In a resort community like this, property gets pretty valuable and people would tend to put a lot of square footage on those properties, and that blows away the surviving historic structures in terms of scale."
While that strict regulatory approach ensures more buildings are preserved, it also limits the freedom of property owners to do what they want with their land.
"It's hard for some people to realize they can't tear down an old shed," Nicholls said. "They think if you own a property why can't you build on it? It's private property and government, and it can be messy."
In Frisco, the town council has chosen to assume a more passive role in historic preservation, encouraging it when possible but generally ruling on the side of respecting property rights.
"Frisco has tended to think the carrot is sweeter than the stick," said community development director Joyce Allgaier. "Does it always work? No. We've razed a lot of buildings or moved them to the historic park."
But, Allgaier said, getting too heavy-handed with preservation infringes on the rights of property owners, who are entitled to do what they want with their property as long as it is line with the town code.
"I'm not sure you can always go 'pro-con,' but a 'pro' of the regulatory approach is there ends up being more historic fabric in your community," she said. "The downside is that it's a heavier hand of government, and people tend to not like that."
Instead, the town prefers to incentivize preservation on a case-by-case basis by offering leeway on zoning rules — things like setbacks and parking spaces — in exchange for developers choosing to preserve old structures.
In the Staley House deal, which was given final approval by the council on Feb. 14, developer Kelly Foote was granted exemptions from certain zoning rules. In exchange, he agreed to place the Staley property and his adjacent Foote's Rest sweet shop — itself a nationally-registered historic site that also includes several old cabins — under a historic preservation covenant, which will permanently protect them.
Next in line
Dillon and Silverthorne take a similar hands-off approach, however those towns have only existed for around 50 years, and their historic holdings have all been moved from their original locations.
"In theory, once you move a building it loses some of its historic significance," Silverthorne mayor Bruce Butler said. "So in that sense, everything that has history in Silverthorne doesn't qualify for historic designation."
One historic structure in Dillon, the Rebekah Lodge, has been moved three times since it was built in Frisco in 1882. It could be on the chopping block if a proposed hotel development goes through.
Sandie Mather, president of the Summit Historical Society, said her organization would like to save the building if it can secure funding for purchasing and moving it.
If the price tag for the Rebekah proves to be prohibitive, it would join a long list of historic properties across the county that have been razed over the course of its transformation from mining country to a resort area.
"It's very interesting that the town is now 'rah rah' about historic preservation," Nicholls said, referring to Breckenridge. "But it's too bad they waited so long."
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