Some property owners want to end historic protections in Portland's West End

Randy Billings, Portland Press Herald, Maine
·7 min read

Apr. 1—A dozen neighborhood residents are asking city officials in Portland to dissolve the West End Historic District.

The request comes as city councilors are scheduled on Monday to reconsider a proposed historic district across the peninsula on Munjoy Hill, which would have been the city's 12th district. The councilor initially voted against the Munjoy Hill proposal, the first district ever rejected by a Portland council.

The request to dissolve the West End Historic District was made by Mildred Bachrach, who owns an historic landmark home on the Western Promenade, and included the signatures of 12 other property owners in the district.

Bachrach declined to be interviewed. Her letter, dated April 1, also calls on the city to redraft the historic preservation ordinance, arguing it gives too much power to preservation staff and board members.

Bachrach's letter also expressed support for an analysis of all of the city's historic districts. That study was requested by city councilor Andrew Zarro and is scheduled to face acouncil vote on Monday.

"30 years of Historic Districts in Portland with no formal evaluation is poor city management," Bachrach said. "As many of us have personally experienced, the added expense to maintain our buildings in an HD are substantial. Some of us have spent over $100,000 in added expenses, have found the (historic preservation) staff to be unreasonable and have had very negative experiences with the (board)."

She added, "As a long-term resident I would urge the council to walk the West End. Many many houses have continued to deteriorate because their owners can (not) afford the repairs to (board) standards or the constant maintenance it requires."

City Hall Communications Director Jessica Grondin said the request to dissolve a district appeared to be unique and unusual.

"We're not aware of a similar request before. Therefore, it will take some time for us to review this request and process the next steps," Grondin said.

Based on the city's land use code, the effort appears to be facing a steep climb, however.

The process of rescinding a historic district is similar to creating one. In this case, one or more property owners within the district can initiate the process, but two members of the Historic Preservation Board also have to sponsor the effort.

If that occurs, the entire neighborhood would be notified of the effort, which would then face public hearings and reviews by the preservation board, Planning Board and the City Council, which would have final say.

Historic districts seek to preserve the architectural integrity of older neighborhoods and require an additional layer of review for some projects. They're typically touted as economic development tools. In the case of the Munjoy Hill proposal, however, supporters are hoping that it will slow the pace of demolitions and redevelopment.

Buildings that are deemed contributing to a historic district are protected from demolition, and maintenance of areas visible to the public must be done in a way that maintains what's already there or restores historical features. Those determinations are made by city staff for smaller projects and by the Historic Preservation Board for larger projects.

Buildings that do not contribute to the district can still be torn down. And new construction is allowed in a district, as long as the design compliments historic features in the district.

The West End Historic District was created in 1990, when the city first passed its historic preservation ordinance.

Deb Andrews, the city's historic preservation manager, said the district was originally known as the Western Promenade Historic District and included properties west of Emery Street, an area that had already been listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It was expanded in 1997 to include several blocks east of Emery Street, known as the Brackett Dower Neighborhood, and the district was renamed the West End Historic District, she said.

City Councilor Spencer Thibodeau, who represents the district, said he was not aware of any organized effort or "serious proposal" to dissolve the district and would oppose any effort to do so.

"Since taking office almost six years ago, I have fielded a few concerns about the efficiency of the process," Thibodeau said. "However, those valid concerns do not justify throwing the baby out with the bathwater in this instance."

The letter includes anonymous complaints about the historic preservation process, including added costs for projects and properties that are not getting needed repairs. Attached to the letter are the signatures of 12 additional property owners.

One person who signed the letter declined to be interviewed, saying he did not know he was signing onto an effort to dissolve the West End Historic District. He said he was approached by an East End resident who was looking for people to validate concerns about the cost impacts of improving properties in a historic district.

Other signers could not be reached Thursday.

Anne Pringle, a president of the Western Promenade Neighborhood Association and a former city councilor, also was unaware of the effort. She sent the request to the neighborhood association board after being alerted by a reporter.

"It's out of the blue to me," Pringle said.

As a homeowner in the West End, Pringle said she has interacted with preservation staff about a half a dozen times for a variety of projects, including replacing handrails and a porch, and building a new driveway and pergola, and she has never had a negative experience. She said some homeowners have made improvements without going through the preservation process and had to receive approvals — and in some cases make changes — after-the-fact, which may have caused some hard feelings.

"The examples citied in the letter are what people fear, which I have never experienced or observed," Pringle said. "It's always been trying to find a reasonable solution to address what people want to do. I have always found the board and staff also to be very respectful and reasonable and solution-oriented, within the framework of the ordinance."

Sarah Hansen, executive director of Greater Portland Landmarks, which provided research and support for the Munjoy Hill Historic District proposal, said she supports the proposed study of historic districts in the city. But Hansen also pushed back on the concerns outlined in the letter to rescind the West End district.

"While we respect a property owner's right to request either designation or de-designation, we disagree with many of the assertions made about the benefits and impacts of the West End Historic District," Hansen said. "In fact over the last decade we have seen the opposite results — many of the buildings in the district are much improved and more well maintained than they were 10 or 20 years ago."

Trinity Bachrach, whose mother is leading the effort, said she has run into issues with the preservation staff. She said the historic district makes routine maintenance prohibitively expensive at her Brackett Street home. She said replacing her slate roof cost over $100,000 and the city is requiring her to use wooden siding on the building, among other requirements, rather than lower cost alternatives that she said are attractive and functional.

"The issue I find is that as we try to appreciate older buildings and such, it's hard to maintain — let alone modernize — anything for it to stay standing," she said. "The historic society thinks we should be putting in older structures — to try and build things like we're stuck 200 years ago."

Mayor Kate Snyder said she has not heard any concerns about the West End Historic District in her first 16 months in office, but she acknowledged that the discussion of creating a new district on Munjoy Hill has probably prompted people to think more about existing districts. She said she was still reviewing the request and declined to offer any initial reactions.

"I understand there's context for people thinking about what impacts the rules governing a historic district have," Snyder said. "We will make our way through this request."