EASTPORT — In the wake of continuing disputes over what the owners of downtown buildings can and cannot do with their properties, Eastport is asking whether it was appropriate 10 years ago for federal and state agencies to designate three-fourths of the city’s main street as a historic district.
The answer, according to Code Enforcement Officer Mary Follis, is apparently not. “What improvements can be made to a historic building becomes the source of a lot of conflict every time a proposal comes up,” said Follis, “and one thing we’re starting to unravel is that the historic district was created without giving city officials or the public the opportunity for proper review or input.”
Twenty-nine Water Street buildings were listed on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) in late 1981, a cluster so dense that the Maine Historic Preservation Commission (MHPC), which administers the NRHP program in the state, lumped them all together into one historic district.
Although the designation in itself supposedly does not restrict building owners from renovating the structures, combined with the city’s zoning ordinance in effect at the time “it has the effect of placing severe limitations and of generating a lot of controversy,” Follis said. “Had the city been properly notified of the designation, it’s entirely possible the ordinance would have been modified.”
According to federal law, the designation as a historic district must be approved by the community’s chief elected body. In Eastport, that would be the City Council. Instead, however, the MHPC sent a waiver form to the Planning Board, which approved the creation of the district in January 1982.
“The point is not that the city objects to the district,” Follis said. “The point is that the federal and state agencies ignored their own procedures and failed to conduct a public hearing to give people the opportunity to discuss it.”
Although not complete, legal research by the city solicitor and the Maine Municipal Association suggest that due process was not followed and that the city may have a strong basis to have the designation rescinded, Follis said.
The city’s zoning ordinance when the district was created, restricted alterations to historic buildings to work that would enhance or preserve the historic character of the building. “The problem is that when that ordinance was adopted in 1978, Eastport had only two buildings on the register; the Central Congregational Church and Fort Sullivan,” Follis said. “Obviously, it’s an entirely different matter when you apply that ordinance to the city’s main business district.”
The latest in a long line of controversies over what changes may be made to historic buildings is Fleet Bank’s plan to put up a satellite dish, for which Follis recently issued a permit. “The dish is not even on the building itself, it’s in the yard behind the bank, yet there are several people in the city who strongly oppose it,” Follis said. “Fleet has its permit; we had no basis to deny it, but it exemplifies the kind of problems we’ve faced again and again.”
In amending the zoning ordinance late last year, the City Council replaced the “enhance or preserve” restriction with 10 standards adopted from U.S. Department of the Interior guidelines. “Essentially, it makes changes easier to bring about,” Follis said, “provided there is a reasonable effort to preserve the character of the building, especially if it can be easily changed back. Another problem the council wasn’t happy with was the old ordinance’s restrictions on the demolition of a dilapidated building. The property owner has to advertise his plans in newspapers for six months, which is a significant, unreasonable cost.”
The battle to straighten things out will be waged on two fronts, Follis said. “First, we are very interested in whether proper procedure was followed in creating this district. If not, the city should have the opportunity to have it rescinded so we can start from scratch, with sufficient discussion and public involvement.”
Second, the city is seeking volunteers for a committee which will continue to refine the zoning ordinance. “This Historic Review Committee will look at what this designation means and how the ordinance can be further amended to reflect local wishes. We have five volunteers so far, and we’re hoping for at least 11. We are especially interested in getting people who are actively involved in the downtown business community.”
The City Council plans to make appointments to the committee at its Jan. 21 meeting and Eastport residents interested in serving should notify City Hall.