Suburban communities around Erie County are cataloging their historic buildings in order to protect them from the bulldozers of development -- and from the saws and paintbrushes of remodeling.
The fledgling movement could have widespread implications for property owners and developers, preservationists and officials say.
In the Town of Clarence, a survey has found 600 buildings whose age, importance and architecture make them eligible for the national historic register, according to Clinton Brown, head of a Buffalo architectural services company.
Not all are likely to gain protected status from the town, he added. Currently there are only 109 structures in Erie County on the National Register of Historic Places, largely in Buffalo.
The Town of Orchard Park plans to embark on a similar historical survey in the spring, with the help of a consultant and an expected $20,000 in grant funding.
"This type of movement should have occurred many years ago," said Town Councilman David Kaczor, liaison with the town's Historic Preservation Board. "A number of significant houses have disappeared."
Around the county, seven towns and villages have obtained "Certified Local Government" status, linking them to state and federal preservation programs. The status puts them in line for preservation grants and requires them to protect historic-designated structures.
Seeing the wave of preservation-linked development in Buffalo, suburban municipalities have joined the movement as a way to support their property values and tax bases, Brown said. As farming communities are transformed into suburbs, they risk losing the character that attracted home builders there in the first place, he said.
But some communities are reluctant to join the preservation movement.
The Village of Orchard Park, at the center of the town, considered joining the historical resource survey but decided against it, Mayor John Wilson said. The decision reflected a different take on the balance between historic preservation and property rights.
"When we started down this road with the town, it started to look like it would be too controlling," Wilson said. "When you do [historic designation], a great deal happens to restrict the creativity of the property owner."
A few places in the village already have historic status, he said, including the Jolls House, which is owned by the town; the Orchard Park Railway Depot; and the Quaker Meeting House.
"If a fellow wants to use his property [the way he wants to], who's to say he can't do it?" Wilson said.
Code protections for designated structures generally prevent demolition or exterior renovations that conflict with the original design.
As a practical matter, however, Wilson said he doesn't think village residents would want to raze or radically remodel their buildings whose age and character contribute to their value.
If an owner did go that route, "we could probably find a way not to issue a demolition permit," he added.
Historical surveys don't always yield large numbers of protected properties. Brown said he conducted a survey in the Town of Amherst years ago, but the town wound up designating relatively few structures.
There's usually controversy when a community's interest in its past collides with a property owner's right to be left alone, and one such contest is already playing out in Orchard Park.
Developer John Jerge is embroiled in a battle over the Yates Barn, an early-1900s structure on Jewett Holmwood Road that preservationists call one of the largest surviving barns of its type in the state. They hope to preserve it, perhaps as a horse barn, in opposition to Jerge's plan to put single-family homes on the tract.
That dispute helped spark the inventory of structures, Kaczor said. The nearby villages of Hamburg and East Aurora have taken similar steps, he said.
Having an inventory can head off disputes like the Yates Barn battle, Brown said. "There are developers who tell you they're happy to know [beforehand]," he said.
Being listed on a prestigious national or state registry helps properties obtain preservation grants from foundations, said Dan Keefe, spokesman for the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. But when it comes to intervening to block a demolition or remodeling by a property owner, it is the local government that holds the power, he said.
Kaczor emphasized the town's need to cooperate with owners. For example, plaques noting a structure's significance would only be put up with the owner's permission. And when remodeling is being considered, the town can work with owners to mesh plans with the original design.