AUGUSTA — City councilors debating the proposed creation of a large new historic district wrestled Thursday with what the city would do when safety code requirements conflict with historic preservation standards.

Some councilors expressed concerns that making exceptions to the proposed new west side historic district’s preservation standards to allow building owners to put, for example, fire escapes on the front of their buildings could erode the purpose of the new district — to preserve architecture.

“In my view, people should not be able to nail ladders or put fire escapes onto (the front of) buildings that didn’t originally have that,” Ward 1 Councilor Linda Conti said. “You want to strive to meet life safety codes in every building, but to the extent there is a conflict, the life safety goal should be done in a way that doesn’t impede the historic district standards.”

Conti went on to say she worries that the ordinance would “be toothless because there will be so many exceptions.”

However, other councilors and city staff members said safety codes always take priority. They warned that not allowing modifications needed to comply with safety codes could jeopardize building owners’ plans to put apartments in buildings within the district.

At-large Councilor Dan Emery said if the only way a building owner can comply with safety codes is to add a fire escape that would be visible from the road, in violation of the proposed new Augusta Historic District Ordinance’s standards, not allowing that exception could scuttle the owner’s plans, something he said he would consider a problem.

Matt Nazar, development director for the city, said in that situation, the recommendation of the city staff would be to require building owners to comply with safety codes, because they take priority, while also making every effort to comply with historic preservation standards to the greatest extent possible.

“Staff advice would be the life safety code must be met,” he said. “And accommodate the historic district ordinance to the greatest extent possible. If the only way to comply (is a fire escape visible from the road), staff would recommend allowing that.”

Nazar noted there often will be ways building owners can comply with safety codes without violating the standards of the historic district ordinance.

Under the proposed ordinance, the owners of most buildings downtown and in a large west side neighborhood centered around Winthrop Street would need approval for many exterior building renovations from a proposed historic review board.

The ordinance would create a new locally designated historic district that encompasses two existing designated National Historic Districts surrounding Winthrop and Crosby 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.

The existing National Historic Districts included within the proposed local district don’t require building renovations to comply with any standards. The proposed local ordinance, however, would require some exterior work visible from public areas to be reviewed and approved before taking place.

The ordinance had been scheduled for a first of two required readings on Aug. 20, but councilors agreed Thursday to delay that consideration until early September to give more time for discussion and to mail out notifications of the potential change to all building owners in the district.

Mayor David Rollins, who prior to becoming mayor served as chairman of the committee now recommending the proposal, agreed to delay the vote even though he noted the ordinance is the subject of years of work and has been the topic of numerous public meetings both in the neighborhood and downtown.

“I know that, having been on board this thing the whole way, it has been an incredibly slow process but one that, to my amazement, some people are just now starting to pay attention to,” Rollins said. “For what we want to create with this, a vibrant neighborhood and downtown, we ought to be diligent. We’ve got to lean on the side of making sure we’ve given everybody ample time to address this.”

A few residents of the district weighed in on it Thursday, some expressing support for it as a way to preserve the city’s historic architecture and increase property values, others expressing concerns it could slow renovation projects and add government scrutiny over private property rights.

Green Street resident Timothy Skehan said he theoretically supports the idea of a historic district but objects to the city mandating how residents could renovate their homes. He suggested the goal of historic preservation could be met instead by offering residents education, workshops, and incentives to help them preserve the architecture of their buildings in an appealing manner.

He said he’s currently doing some interior renovations on his home, which wouldn’t be subject to the ordinance, but he may replace a window that is visible from the street.

“If I have to go to the review board, how long would I have to hold up my carpenter before I can replace that window?” Skehan asked. “It’s going to add a month to any project you want to do.”

The draft ordinance states that when the city receives an application, the proposed review board would review it at its next meeting. A meeting agenda would have to be posted at least seven days before the meeting. Once the board meets, it would have a maximum of 15 days to approve the request, approve it with conditions or deny it. It then would have another seven days to inform the applicant of the decision, for a total of 29 days.

Deb Andrews, a Yarmouth resident who manages the city of Portland’s Historic Preservation Office, said many of the concerns, including time delays and cost increases and residents not being able to do what they want in renovation projects, were expressed in Portland and elsewhere similar ordinances have been adopted. She said most those fears prove to be unfounded when the ordinances are adopted.

“In my experience, in Portland, there were these same, grave concerns about whether it would work,” she said. “And the reality of it is, it has worked extraordinarily well. Oftentimes, it’s not about what you want to do; it’s how you do it.”

Rollins noted even once the ordinance passes — if it does — it won’t be cast in concrete and the city can make changes if needed.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj


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