Historic District

Wiscasset Historic District Commission (SAVED)

The Story

Wiscasset, whose gateway signage states, “the prettiest village in Maine,” is often recognized as a community of beautiful 18th and 19th century historic houses and a charming commercial district along the Sheepscot River. Its dynamic and diverse residential architecture is the envy of many Maine communities and is one of the area’s biggest visitor draws.

In 1973 Wiscasset was the first historic district in Maine listed in the National Register of Historic Places and the architectural importance of this community has long been recognized. The listing itself states, “The constant stream of tourists pausing before these houses reflects the importance of preserving Wiscasset's best natural resource.” Only recently, however, has Wiscasset passed an historic district ordinance and established a Historic District Commission (HDC), providing local protections and guidance to ensure the longevity of the district.

The Threat

After just one complaint from a homeowner who had demolished an historic fence without review from the HDC, the City of Wiscasset is now considering eliminating the entire Historic District Commission. The ordinance was designed to specifically, “prevent, without prior review, the demolition or removal of significant historic buildings or structures within designated districts or designated sites or landmarks and other significant design elements.” The ordinance was passed in 2015, and the commission has only been in place a year. The intent of the commission is that: “The heritage and economic well-being of the Town will be strengthened by preserving its architectural and historic setting, conserving property values in unique areas, fostering civic beauty, and promoting the use of historic or architecturally significant buildings for the education and welfare of the citizens of the Town of Wiscasset.” It is natural for new commissions to experience growing pains, and one individual complaint should not dictate the future of an entire historic district. 

The Solution

Studies have shown that Historic District Commissions increase property values, provide insights to property owners undertaking the difficult job of rehabilitation, and ensure the important and character-defining elements of landmarks are safeguarded for all property owners, residents and visitors. The Wiscasset HDC has not yet had the opportunity to educate the citizens of Wiscasset to the many advantages of commissions, including federal and state grant funds, but is already planning new online resources for property owners in the district and a new online application that should make the entire process easy to navigate. Many other communities across the state have had such commissions in force successfully for many years and others are looking for progressive and straightforward ways to ensure their heritage is celebrated and maintained. We encourage Wiscasset to continue the HDC to allow the community to strengthen its property values, retain the attractive features that attract so many visitors and residents and remain a model for historic preservation in Maine.

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.

Downtown Wiscasset

The Story

Everyone in Maine, including Maine Preservation, recognizes the need to seriously address the traffic backup every summer in Wiscasset. For anyone passing over the Davey Bridge to Edgecomb, congestion and delays are common during the summer months and sometimes beyond. The Maine Department of Transportation (MDOT) has proposed various options for traffic improvements over the past several decades. In March 2016 the most recent plan for a bypass of downtown was shelved and three new design concepts were introduced. DOT's preferred choice, Option 2, adds two sets of traffic lights and eliminates all on-street storefront parking along Route 1 throughout downtown between Middle and Water Streets. Historic sidewalks would be eliminated and replaced with new widened walkways, diagonal storefront parking would disappear and visitors and shoppers would be directed to a block away on Water Street, where MDOT proposes to turn an occupied property into a parking lot.

The Threat

While the initial plan was approved, both the citizens and the Wiscasset Board of Selectmen, residents voted down Option 2 and the selectmen has also disapproved of the plan, but MDOT has stated they plan to “stay the course” regardless. A lawsuit has been filed against MDOT by local business owners citing reversal of initial promises and subsequent backtracking on MDOT's obligation to consider the interests of the town. Among the most concerning items to note:

- In Public meetings and communications in spring 2016 MDOT stated the project would require no taking of private property and that 80% of anticipated project costs would be covered with federal dollars. Now MDOT states they will not be using federal funds, avoiding federally mandated environmental and historic review processes. Plus, additional funds have been spent condemning and acquiring a building. Consequently, MDOT will increase costs to residents and are unnecessarily using all Maine taxpayer dollars. 

- While MDOT said 20 additional parking spaces would be created along Creamery Wharf, now the historic Hagget’s garage building, housing a thriving office, will be demolished to make way for parking.

- The maintenance of many design elements of the project, such as the additional traffic lights, expanded sidewalks and parking lots, will likely be costs assumed by the town in the future, raising the question of whether or not local tax increases will be necessary.

The proposal to remove all parking along Route 1 on Main Street will have a devastating impact on the viability of businesses in this vibrant commercial district. Maine DOT appears to be alone in believing that parking causes the traffic problem in Wiscasset. Yet, numerous studies in communities across the nation have proven that parking not located directly within downtown areas has a major negative impact on businesses. In fact, MDOT’s own architectural survey report of downtown Wiscasset maintains that on-street parking is an integral part of the Village’s historic setting. In communities the size of Wiscasset, each downtown parking space is worth approximately $25,000 a year in local sales dollars. Locating these spaces off Main Street is not equal to providing shoppers with visible and accessible parking adjacent to businesses.

The current option proposes the demolition of the former Coastal Enterprises, Inc. headquarters on Water Street, Hagget’s garage. This 1918 building now houses the Midcoast Conservancy with 9 employees. The Conservancy had made entered into an option to purchase the building from CEI, but Maine DOT made the “urgent” decision to exercise eminent domain, taking the building and directing the Conservancy to relocate. They would have to move outside Wiscasset, as comparable space is not available. Not only does the building house its headquarters, it is providing the community with an art gallery, meeting space and acts as the hub for the Conservancy’s program that provides skiing equipment for children. The loss of this anchor and the district’s loss of employees and building users who frequently shop and eat downtown for a small parking lot are short-sighted and will have a negative and long lasting economic impact. 

The Solution

Traffic through Wiscasset, especially in July and August, is an issue that has been perplexing Midcoast Maine for years. However, prior to spending $5 million of Maine taxpayer money on an unproven “solution” DOT should test their plans. The installation of temporary traffic lights and separately testing temporarily blocking off of parking spaces is an easy and affordable step in discerning the true viability and economic impact of this plan. In 1997 an MDOT study projecting traffic through 2015 found that there would be zero percent reduction in delays from changes made to downtown. Now, MDOT is claiming its current project will reduce traffic delays by over 50%. It is irresponsible and unwise to spend so much time and Maine taxpayer’s valuable money on a project with no assured positive outcome, especially if it is against the will of the community and comes at the cost of locally owned businesses and the vibrancy of one of the state’s oldest and most revered historic communities.