May 30, 2020

Demolition of historic Bar Harbor buildings delayed

BAR HARBOR – Preservationists, armed with research and ready for a fight, called Thursday’s design review board meeting anticlimactic, after project architect David C. Witham asked that board members deny his request to demolish the McKay Lodging cottages and the Morang-Robinson Ford dealership on South Main Street.

The demolition permit was denied by a 6-0 vote.

But this vote alone won’t stop Witham from constructing on the property a new 71-room inn called The Rodick Inn.

Although the Bar Harbor comprehensive plan includes language about historic preservation, conflicting zoning ordinances do not grant the design review board the authority to deny projects deemed harmful to the town’s historic character, said board members.

“It’s just flowery wording,” said design review board member Ellen Dohmen of the comprehensive plan. “The town is faced with two incompatible ordinances.”

Recent proposals to strengthen the board’s power to preserve historic structures have been voted down by town residents, Dohmen said.

According to current rules, despite Thursday’s denial of Witham’s request for a demolition permit, he only needs to notify townspeople of his intent to demolish the four buildings, and wait 120 days to give other groups sufficient time to move buildings off the property.

After the four-month window has expired, the demolition can occur with no further municipal review, said code enforcement officer Kim Keene.

“It’s only on the local historic register, and the local register has no teeth,” said design review board Chairman Richard Cough. “We’re strictly concerned with aesthetics here.”

Witham told board members that he was requesting the denial both because he hopes to work with preservationists to relocate one or more of the buildings, and because he knew that the permit likely would not be approved.

Ordinances require a developer to prove that a historic building is not structurally sound before it can be demolished, and the largest McKay cottage is in good condition, Witham said.

On Thursday, Witham offered $10,000 per building to help cover moving expenses. He previously has offered to sell the buildings for $1 each to anyone interested in relocating the historic structures. As of Thursday, he said that two “serious offers” already had been made for the largest McKay cottage.

“We really want to try to save that first building,” Witham said. “It really is a difficult decision to tear something down.”

Opponents to Witham’s project were given little time for comment, as a long agenda awaited the board, and the outcome of a vote was assured, Cough said.

“We can talk until the cow jumps over the moon, but it’s not going to change our vote,” he said.

However, Catherine Barrett, president of the new Preservation Trust of Bar Harbor, spoke briefly about the connections between architect Fred Savage and the 1913 Franklin Auto showroom that became Morang-Robinson Ford.

A lawyer representing neighboring property owner Tristam Colket also expressed opposition to the demolition.

But Barrett and her husband, Robert, described the meeting as “shocking,” and were angered that they could not present evidence to support their opposition of the demolition, including a video, letters from the Maine Historic Preservation Commission, and Maine Preservation, and histories of the properties in question.

“They allowed Witham to start the demolition clock, and wouldn’t let us provide key evidence,” they said in a prepared statement released Thursday evening.

Thursday’s meeting did touch on some larger aspects of the demolition, considering the neighborhood impact that so concerns the preservation group.

“What you’re not preserving by relocating the building is the character of the neighborhood,” said board member Richard Guttman.

Lisa DeMuro, who lives directly behind McKay Lodging, responded that several of the buildings contribute little to the neighborhood and are not worth saving.

“At this point, I don’t think there’s much to preserve,” DeMuro said. “I’ve watched it go downhill. It’s been falling down for 15 years. Where were the people who wanted to preserve the character all that time?”

Witham offered the idea that his new hotel would preserve “historic character,” by re-creating an 1875 Bar Harbor hotel called The Rodick House.

“It’s hard to lose something, but what we’re proposing, we feel will help to recapture what was lost 80 years ago,” Witham said.

Later in the meeting, Witham unveiled his design for The Rodick Inn, which will span both the McKay Lodging and the Morang-Robinson Ford lots.

“This is really an attempt to bring part of the charm of downtown to this part of town,” Witham said. “It will emulate a lot of the historic features,” he said.

As proposed, the hotel will have 71 rooms – which Walsh said was the minimum number required to support the property’s mortgage at the proposed price of about $135 per night.

“We figured out how many rooms we needed to make this project work,” Witham said.

The proposed plan also uses the lot to fit as many rooms as possible into the hotel without compromising its design.

As planned, the hotel will require zoning easements so that Walsh can build its towers and porch within the required front setback, thus, positioning parking to the back and sides of the building.

If planning board members do not give the project “relief” in zoning restrictions, developers may be “forced” to construct a more efficient box-style building, or place parking along the street, Witham said. Board members’ reactions to the plan were mixed.

Cough called The Rodick Inn a “handsome building.” But several board members were concerned about its size.

“Just because something is old, and part of our history, doesn’t mean it’s attractive,” Dohmen said. “With this building taking up about a city block, the size concerns me.”

“There’s no question that this is a beautiful rendering, but is the scale fitting for that part of town?” asked board Vice Chairwoman Kathy Woodside. “This building is literally going to jump right out of the rest of the neighborhood.”

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