quaint ~ by guest blogger Andy Walker, City of Meadville

quaint    ËˆkwÄnt   adjective ~ having an old-fashioned or unusual quality or appearance that is usually attractive or appealing

Lancaster, New Hampshire (population 3,507) is the seat of Coos County, New Hampshire’s northern-most county. Sandwiched between the White Mountains to the east and the Connecticut River just on the edge of town, Lancaster serves as the gateway to the Great North Woods, an important tourism region and home to great outdoor experiences, including hunting, moose viewing, hiking, and ATV and snowmobile trails. It’s a “typical” New England town with white-steepled churches and a quaint Main Street, complete with an historic theater and a first-class retail outfitter. It’s that quaintness – its historic architecture, wide Main Street, and great sense of place – that draws so many to Lancaster and the Great North Woods.

That quaintness was interrupted when a developer announced it planned to purchase two historic homes on Main Street to construct an 8,000 square foot discount retail store. While not the first box store on Main Street (Rite Aid preceded it by almost 15 years), the proposed development caught the town off guard, igniting a heated community conversation around zoning, design guidelines, property rights, and economic development. Despite a citizen challenge to the town’s zoning approval and without other zoning or regulatory controls to govern it, acquisition, demolition, and construction proceeded. The results, to many, are less than impressive. Both the scale of the development (the largest retail footprint on Main Street) and the building materials chosen (split-face block, aluminum framed windows, and metal awnings) buck the context and character of what surrounds it. (Incidentally, Rite Aid submitted years before to a context-sensitive design that did its best to mimic the local architecture.)

After learning this hard lesson and recognizing the importance of its quaint Main Street to its economic future, the citizens of Lancaster are now engaged in a planning process that will evaluate zoning tools and other design controls that will protect and honor the town’s historic character while allowing future Main Street development to add value and enhance the visitor experience.

Has your community evaluated its historic assets? Have you discussed what makes your town unique? Have you prioritized preservation or context-sensitive design? Have you put in place a plan to promote and protect those unique characteristics?