A row of houses on Vesper Street that would be included in Portland's proposed Munjoy Hill Historic District. (Portland Phoenix/Jordan Bailey)
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Three nights before City Hall shut down in response to the coronavirus, residents of Munjoy Hill packed into council chambers for a public hearing on a proposed historic district for their neighborhood. 

More than 50 people spoke during two hours of public comment at the March 10 Planning Board meeting, with approximately 40 in support of the district. But others still question whether it is the right move for the city and raised new concerns about the process. 

Ultimately, the board delayed its deliberations and vote to a scheduled March 17 meeting, although public meetings have now been suspended. 

Supporters spoke of the importance of preserving the character of the neighborhood and protecting it from the market forces that are leading to demolitions of older structures and their replacement by large modern condominiums with many units selling for more than $1 million. 

The construction of large condominiums became possible in 2015 when changes to zoning in the R6 zone allowed for larger buildings on smaller lots, in an effort to increase housing density. After some residents objected, the City Council enacted a six-month moratorium on demolitions. A Munjoy Hill Neighborhood Conservation Overlay District was later approved, which set a one-year demolition delay and stricter design standards. 

Now the board is considering a winding historic district that would cover about half of the neighborhood. It would prohibit demolitions and require historic preservation review of new construction, additions and alterations.

In the proposed district, underlying zoning laws would still apply, and buildings that are “non-contributing” could be demolished without delay. There are 376 contributing and 51 non-contributing buildings in the district, but contributing buildings could be reclassified as non-contributing if the building is structurally unsound or if the owner can show economic hardship.

Supporters also spoke of the public process that has alleviated many of their concerns about the effects of district designation. Several referred to the assurances by Historic Preservation Manager Deb Andrews and Planning Director Christine Grimando that renovations would not necessarily be more expensive because the Historic Preservation Board and staff would work with owners to suggest inexpensive substitute materials that would still meet design standards, and that interior renovations are not restricted. 

“I went to so many workshops and my questions were answered,” said Beth Snyder of North Street. “I have a lot of renovations I’ve done and need to do, and I’m convinced that if we are designated that the city would work with me that it will be affordable, that I can meet with Deb Andrews and people to help me replace in-kind.” 

Notification glitch

One opponent raised concerns about the notification process.

Laura Shen, who moved to a townhouse at 59 Moody St. last June, said she was never notified that her home would be included in the district, and only learned about it in February. She said city staff told her an administrative error led to her not being notified.

Andrews explained that it takes assessors four to five months to get information about real estate sales and process it, so there is a lag between the purchase of a property and the contact information being updated in the city’s system. Further, she said, staff had been using a list downloaded last summer to send notices for each workshop. Since Shen brought the issue to their attention, she said, they renew their mailing list for each notification. 

Christine Grimando said that the lag between purchases and assessors’ updates led to a gap that was unfortunate but does not invalidate the process. “The basic noticing requirements have been met,” she said.  

But Shen questioned how many other people might have been affected, and said this raises questions about the integrity of the process. She said she received a petition opposing the district designation the day before and within an evening had nine homeowners under the age of 35 willing to sign it. 

“As a younger couple who looks forward to working here, we have found this process pretty divisive and polarizing,” she said. “It makes it less attractive to recommend others move to the Hill with this uncertainty of what the historic district might restrict and the additional expense it might bring to homeowners.”

Other opponents questioned the premise that historic preservation would help maintain affordability in the neighborhood. 

Josh Baston of Munjoy Street said that while the current review board does a good job working with people and providing a lot of leeway on materials, a future board might not see it the same way. John Mahoney of Atlantic Street suggested that while a historic district might preserve affordable housing in the short term, over the long term it may not; he pointed to a historic district in Charleston, South Carolina, as an example. 

A Munjoy Hill blogger, meanwhile, suggested the effort to create the district is coming from the same group of “NIMBY” activists who were behind the unsuccessful referendum to protect view corridors and block redevelopment of the former Portland Co. property on the Eastern Waterfront.

“The preponderance of those testifying for the District were the elite of the Hill,” Carol McCracken wrote on her Munjoy Hill News blog. “Numerous lawyers, a residential architect, a nationally successful business woman, landlords, and others who have not been seen at city hall since the unsuccessful struggle to prevent the redevelopment of 58 Fore Street, a/k/a Portland Foreside testified in favor of the Historic District.”

Board questions 

Planning Board members questioned whether the district meets the city’s definition of a historic district and conforms to the city’s goals outlined in its comprehensive plan. 

Sean Dundon said he felt the sense of place in the proposed district is  “very vague,” and that it could be argued many other neighborhoods have a similar sense of place. 

“If you continue to take neighborhoods off the market by historic districts, that’s a problem,” he said.

Dundon said the Comprehensive Plan goals of mobility, walkability and neighborhood equity should be balanced with historic preservation goals. With so many new office buildings being built in the area, he said, there would need to be increased housing to accommodate workers to adhere to the goal of people living near their jobs. He also questioned why the historic district was being proposed before ReCode – the rewriting of the city’s land-use code – is complete.

Austin Smith asked if the city is on the path of declaring the whole peninsula a historic district since there are many historic districts within it. 

Board Chairman Brandon Mazer questioned the broad “period of significance” of the proposed district that spans a 75-year period between 1850 and 1925 with multiple distinct periods of development.

Andrews said that there are areas on the peninsula – Bayside, for example – that have had significant new development, so would not qualify, and that there are currently no other neighborhoods under consideration for the designation.

Like the proposed district, she said, the West End Historic District includes a building from 1799, many buildings from the mid-19th Century and others from the 1930s, and that it was expanded to include a diversity of housing types, including working-class housing. 

And she said historic districts do accommodate increased housing: many of the historic buildings have been converted to include more units than they were originally built for, and that the designation does not prevent accessory dwelling units. 

Rather than taking the neighborhood “off the market,” she said that it is responding to the pressure the neighborhood is facing. 

“To take a laissez-faire approach to this is to take chances that the story that is so evident on Munjoy Hill today won’t be in the future,” Andrews said. “Historic designation does not preclude change, it does not preclude new development, it does not preclude changes to existing structures. It has an effect of stabilizing neighborhoods and enriching the identifiable sense of place.”

A non-resident on Portland’s Historic Preservation Board?

City officials said they are satisfied that a member of the Historic Preservation Board is officially a resident of Portland, even though she votes in Cape Elizabeth.

Tax records show board member Penny Pollard owns a home on Peabbles Point Lane in Cape Elizabeth. The property is listed on vacation rental site VRBO, with spring and summer months blocked out from available dates. 

According to Cape Elizabeth voter rolls, Pollard voted there twice after her October 2019 reappointment to the Portland Historic Preservation Board: In November 2019 and March 2020.

Under state law, a residence for voting purposes is defined as “that place where the person has established a fixed and principal home to which the person, whenever temporarily absent, intends to return.” 

Portland residency is a requirement for membership on the city board. 

City spokeswoman Jessica Grondin said Pollard’s residency was previously investigated by the city. 

“The clerk did look into it,” Grondin said. “(Pollard) lives in Portland and has a house in Cape Elizabeth. Her driver’s license and other documents list Portland as her residence.” 

Questions sent to Pollard through her VRBO account were not returned by press time. 

Historic Preservation Board Chairwoman Julie Sheridan declined to comment while she was at work (she is an assistant district attorney for Cumberland County) and referred questions back to City Hall.

Planning Board Chairman Brandon Mazer said the Planning Board and Historic Preservation Board have “very little crossover” and he does not have knowledge of Pollard’s personal information.

— Jordan Bailey