AUGUSTA — City councilors had pointed questions Thursday night about a proposed new historic district ordinance, which would require the owners of buildings downtown and in a large west side residential area to have many exterior building renovations reviewed and approved by a new historic-district review board.

Much of the council debate was about a provision of the proposed ordinance that would require property owners in the district to prevent their buildings from falling “into a state of deterioration by neglect.” It defines that as “the deterioration of any exterior structural or architectural feature to such a degree it would produce, in the judgment of the (Augusta Historic District Review Board), an irremediably detrimental effect on the life and character of that historic structure or landmark and that could lead to a claim that demolition is necessary for public safety.”

At-Large Councilor Jeffrey Bilodeau said he would never vote for the ordinance if that part of it could prompt the city to penalize residents of the district who might have a home with a bad roof, deteriorating exterior walls, or another problem they could not afford to fix, for violating the ordinance.

“I’m asking questions because I want to understand it,” Bilodeau said. “We’re not going to kick people out of their homes because they can’t afford to do something to it. Do I have to worry about that (as a result of the ordinance)? If I do, I don’t support it.”

Matt Nazar, development director, said he would look into that issue further but said that provision was meant to address homes allowed to deteriorate so much they would present a danger to the public.

“The standard is very high” that would have to be met before the city could take action against someone in the district for not maintaining a home, At-Large Councilor Dale McCormick said, speaking in favor of the ordinance. “If demolition is necessary for public safety, that’s an extremely high bar.”

The proposed Augusta Historic District Ordinance would create a new locally designated historic district that encompasses three existing designated National Historic Districts surrounding Winthrop, Crosby, and Bond streets. It would include the downtown Water Street area north until just beyond Bond Street, extend as far south as a small portion of Western Avenue at Memorial Circle, and include homes and other buildings along parts of State, Green, Bridge, Chapel, Melville, South Chestnut, North Chestnut, Spring, Winter and Summer streets.

Ordinance proponents say creating the district would help preserve and protect the historic architecture of the part of the city west of the Kennebec River.

Mayor David Rollins, who was chairman of the subcommittee that recommended the proposal, said it didn’t come from city officials’ desire to regulate what building owners can do in that part of the city. Rather, it’s a response to west side neighborhood residents who expressed a desire to protect the historical integrity of their neighborhood, he said.

“This came up from the streets of the neighborhood,” Rollins said. “Policy alone won’t get it done. This will be on how the citizens of that district take it, live it, accept it and let it become part of who they are.”

Unlke national historic districts already in the city, the new local district would require building owners within it to go through an extra step of approval, compared to what they’d have to do elsewhere in the city, for many exterior renovations.

New construction, additions, and exterior renovations to buildings in the district that would be visible from the street would be subject to review and approval by the proposed new Augusta Historic District Review Board, which would review submitted proposals based on guidelines from the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties. If they comply with those guidelines, projects would be granted a historic preservation certificate.

Rollins said the committee would be made up of the chairwoman of the Augusta Historic Preservation Commission, two residents of the district, a City Council member, a building owner from downtown, and two residents from outside the district.

Rollins said he already has some people in mind for the committee and had spoken to them about serving.

Some councilors, including Ward 1 Councilor Linda Conti, expressed concern about the committee’s membership, which is not specified in the written proposed ordinance, such as whether two residents from outside the district should be included, and whether Rollins was premature in telling residents they’d be on the committee, before the ordinance was approved.

Rollins said councilors could vote against his appointments but he still planned to make them as proposed.

Properties in the district that have been determined to be “contributing” properties to the district, meaning they contribute to its historic value, would have to meet more stringent requirements than properties in the district deemed noncontributing. A historian already has reviewed many properties in the district, because many of them were already in one of the three existing nationally designated historic districts.

However, both contributing and noncontributing properties still would have to meet minimum standards in the district, according to Nazar. He said even minor changes to contributing properties would have to go before the review board for approval, while only major projects at noncontributing properties would require review.

Work on buildings in the district that wouldn’t require review by the new board would include: painting; ordinary maintenance and repair of any exterior architectural feature when that repair does not involve a change in design or appearance; the construction or alteration of any structure not visible from the street; work on any feature the code enforcement officer certifies is required because of unsafe or dangerous conditions; and changes to lawn and garden objects and landscaping including plantings, sculptures, walkways and walls 2 feet high or lower.

Nazar said no interior work, nor anything not visible from a public way, would be subject to the ordinance. The ordinance also would not require owners to make any modifications to their buildings.

Rollins, a real estate appraiser, said he’s seen property values and community pride increase in other areas where historic architecture is required to be preserved and maintained, and the district also could help draw visitors and new residents to that part of the city.

“There is plenty of history on this, this is not untried art,” Rollins said. “All around Maine, downtown districts, historic districts, are clearly reaping the rewards of the economic impact and vitality this brings. And we have a really rich history here in the city of Augusta.”

The ordinance proposal now goes to the Planning Board for it to review and make a nonbinding recommendation to councilors. Then it will come back to the council for two required readings, each with a public hearing, before it could be approved.

The new ordinance does not specify the consequences of building owners not following the new rules.

However, it would be part of the city’s Land Use Ordinance. That ordinance’s options for enforcement and penalties for people who don’t follow its rules start with the code enforcement officer notifying the property owner in writing and ordering action to correct the violation. Consequences lead up, if corrective actions aren’t taken, to penalties including fines of $100 to $2,500 per violation, with each day a violation continues considered a separate offense.

The new requirement to obtain a historic preservation certificate from the review board wouldn’t replace the city’s existing requirements for those taking on building projects, depending on the size and type of project, to obtain a building permit from the city codes office or undergo review and approval by the Planning Board.

Nazar said, within the historic district, large projects involving the construction of a commercial building would need all three approvals, smaller projects such as an addition to a house would need a building permit and historic preservation certificate, and still-smaller projects such as window replacement would require only a historic preservation certificate.

Several public hearings were held on the changes, at which only a few building owners expressed concerns, Rollins said. He said some who opposed the idea said they thought people should be allowed to do as they wish with their own property.

Nazar also said the feedback at the public hearings was mostly positive, and while a few people had concerns about the proposal’s effect on the cost of renovations, most were enthusiastic that the ordinance could improve the quality of the area.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj


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