Historic Residential Neighborhoods

The Story

As the real estate economy continues to improve, preserving historic houses has become an increasingly critical issue. Individual houses and those in historic neighborhoods are threatened by the absence of local protection from demolition or major loss of their historic character.

Foreside Road in Cumberland and Falmouth, Route 88, has been cited by preservations from across the country as being among the most architecturally diverse roads in the country. Recently, an important ca.1790 sea captain’s house at 154 Foreside Road in Cumberland was demolished without any review, input from neighbors or local residents or consultation with preservation organizations. Set back just meters from what was the Old State Road, the house was an important link to development along this significant corridor less than a decade after the end of the American Revolution. The house was demolished because ironically the Town of Cumberland, in seeking to encourage denser neighborhood development, had recently decreased minimum lot size from two acres to one acre. This house sat on a two-acre lot and when a builder decided to build a second house the historic house was razed to make it easier to have two houses.

In Rockland, the recent demolition of a house associated with two internationally famous actresses from the early Broadway and Silver Screen era, Maxine and Gertrude Elliot, has sparked local concern over the ease with which an owner in Rockland could bring down a significant landmark. Community discussion on how to protect important community heritage has now begun. Unfortunately, it is often the case that a significant building has to be lost to demolition prior to action. However, increasingly communities are becoming proactive.

The Threat

Cumberland has no local historic ordinance to protect historic houses, nor do the adjoining towns of Yarmouth, Falmouth, North Yarmouth, Gray or Windham. As a result, rehabilitation for resale of the old Stagecoach Annex on a historic stretch of Walnut Hill Road in North Yarmouth removed much of the original historic features of the house. In fact only about 25 towns and cities in Maine do have some protection; this compares to 84 in New Hampshire. But, towns exploring or recently upgrading local protection include Biddeford, Bridgton, Damariscotta, Durham, Gorham, Rockland and Searsport.

Coinciding with the lack of protections in place for historic homes, housing and homebuilding in the United States is striving for cost efficiency above all other factors. Character and longevity have in some instances given way to convenience and immediate affordability. Misinformation on the energy efficiency of historic homes and the ability to cost-effectively insulate has compounded these issues. That said, there are a number of solutions, some immediately available and some further down the line, which may alleviate such stresses.

The Solution

Modernization of historic homes to current code and efficiency standards while retaining historic features is easily and frequently accomplished. Rehabilitations which do not retain historic features are generally more expensive and in most cases, far less durable.

A key step in preserving historic houses and neighborhoods is developing greater public awareness. Surveying and assembling a list of historic buildings is a community building activity that fosters civic pride, as the history of the community comes alive through its structures.

Passing an ordinance to protect these important buildings and guide their rehabilitation is a second step. Studies have shown that protected historic districts appreciate faster than adjoining areas, and faster than similar areas in adjoining towns. This is because such areas improve and maintain their appearance and accentuate historic features, and this character is what attracts residents in the first place, as well as visitors.

A highly effective statewide solution to ensure the preservation of historic houses would be the introduction of a state residential historic tax credit. This credit, currently offered to owner-occupied residents in twenty-three states, is available for homes individually listed in the National Register of Historic Places, those located in National Register-listed districts or locally designated neighborhood or downtown districts. In Maine, the residential credit could mirror the highly effective historic rehabilitation tax credit for income-producing buildings only, which has sparked more than $400 million in project investment since 2008. A15-25% credit on the eligible rehabilitation expenditures or a 35-45% credit if the property is vacant and blighted, is spread over a five-year period, and if the home is sold or is no longer the owner's primary residence, the remaining portion of the credit is forfeited. If enacted, this measure would encourage high-quality rehabilitation work and grow the property tax base while preserve Maine’s unique heritage.

Historic Houses & Land Trusts

The Story
There are 1,700 conservation land trusts in the United States, 100 here in Maine alone. They not only offer flexibility to landowners, but provide protection in perpetuity for sensitive natural areas, farmland and water sources. Economic and health benefits abound, providing community access to outdoor recreation and enhancing the overall quality of life, which in turn increases property values and attracts businesses. There are myriad ways in which land conservation groups operate and use strategies to provide protection and they can include purchase of a conservation easement to limit development or outright purchase to protect land. Nonprofit land trusts rely on grants, private donations and public land acquisition programs to cover costs.

The Threat
Conservation and preservation often have overlapping goals that can work together. While conservationists generally work for the protection of natural resources, preservationists work to protect buildings, objects and landscapes. But this difference in focus can result in the preservation of historic structures on conservation land being incidental. There are several recent instances of property being acquired by land trusts without provisions that allow for the preservation of historic structures on site or their separate purchase by an owner sympathetic to both interests. The result is the loss of viable historic structures that could contribute economically to the community, and the loss of historic and cultural resources integral to telling the story of the landscape.

The Solution
Historic preservation and land conservation are not mutually exclusive, and collaboration provides context – buildings and landscapes are more meaningful when preserved together. Additionally, our historic buildings are important economic assets and are central to providing crucial affordable rural housing units. Maine Preservation has had the opportunity to successfully partner with the Georges River Land Trust to sell for rehabilitation a vacant historic house and 5 acres in South Thomaston which is surrounded by their 200-acre conservation acquisition, while securing an option on an additional 28-acre parcel across the road that they were later able to acquire. If selling the property for private use is not viable, other states have developed models that involve both farmers and rehabilitators in residence. Developing strong relationships between the preservation and conservation communities will provide the benefit of expansive expertise that will allow for a strong economic future for both Maine’s natural and built heritage.

Coastal & Waterfront Communities

The Story

Maine’s jagged coastline, with sandy beaches on the south and rocky shores Midcoast and Downeast, is 3,478 miles long (longer than California). With all 3,166 offshore islands included, the state has over 5,000 miles of coast. Maine’s maritime industrial heritage established many of the state’s communities along the coast and tidal inlets; other major towns and cities in the state were established along rivers.

Ice caps and glaciers, which contain enough ice to raise sea levels more than 200 feet if fully melted, are substantially shrinking each year. The latest estimate by scientists is a sea level rise of at least 10 feet in the next 50 years in addition to predictions of more and more extreme storms. Portland Society of Architecture estimates that a 4-foot sea level rise would do $111 million in damage to Portland alone.

The Threat

Historic downtowns and neighborhoods throughout Maine, like those across the United States and the world, are already facing erosion and flooding from rising seas with higher surges, and stronger storms with greater precipitation. Such increasingly intense and frequent storms are causing irreversible damage to our coastal heritage. This new normal is pushing Maine and historic preservation into an era where current methods of revitalization and celebration of place are being met with the very real future of loss.

In southern Maine in the last century more than 30 buildings have been destroyed by beach erosion alone:

- A minimum of 20 houses have been lost at Camp Ellis in Saco; 33 lots are now in the ocean

- In the last 20 years alone, 3 houses in Saco were completely  destroyed by erosion

- At least 10 buildings, including a hotel, were lost at Popham Beach in Phippsburg

- A hotel at Higgins Beach in Scarborough was destroyed by erosion.

But now the threat is increasing, including to the rocky coast as well.

Maine’s coastal counties account for 77% of the state’s total employment, and if we do not initiate strong, broad-based planning in anticipation of the continued rise in sea levels we are in danger of losing more than historic structures. With tourism the largest industry in Maine, without planning and strong action, we make ourselves economically as well as physically vulnerable.

The Solution

Historic preservation, in conjunction with other fields must collectively look forward and take measures to fortify the state to meet these challenges with innovative and collaborative action steps.

A national conversation has begun, in the field of historic preservation with Newport, RI Restoration Foundation and the cities of Annapolis, MD and Alexandria, VA among others leading the way. Discussions are focusing on what we can do, collectively, to protect our historic downtowns and neighborhoods from the inevitable rise of sea levels in order to develop smart local and state policies to protect entire communities. The future of our heritage, and the legacy we leave for generations of Mainers depends upon quick and progressive action.