A draft ordinance setting building preservation requirements for areas of Newcastle will progress to the select board following a heated public hearing and an initial failed planning board vote on Thursday, Sept. 21.
The ordinance, developed in an ad hoc committee appointed by the select board, would require building owners in the town’s three historic districts to apply for a certificate of appropriateness from an appointed review board for exterior changes to their homes or lots. The draft also sets review for demolition or new construction in the zone.
Residents at the planning board’s hearing for the draft on Sept. 21 said the ordinance removes community trust and will create higher costs leading to deferred maintenance and increasing unaffordability.
Some also questioned public input and transparency and said the draft was designed “from the top down” to impact a small group of residents.
Several called its restrictions un-American and one described it as unconstitutional.
According to Isabelle Oechslie, the former town planner contracted to help finish the ordinance, the core zoning code, passed in 2020 after a 2018 character code failed at the polls, was intended to be followed with an additional ordinance for historic preservation.
Newcastle currently has three zoned historic districts: Damariscotta Mills, Glidden Street, and Sheepscot Village. Zoning changes are approved by voters.
Landowners outside of these districts could apply to add their properties to the ordinance as local landmarks.
As drafted, the ordinance splits projects into three tiers requiring different levels of review.
In the first tier, proposals would be reviewed by the town planner. The tier includes removing or replacing non-historic features, installing historic features, building a deck or installing wiring not publicly visible, building low walls or fences except in the front of the lot, and replacing light fixtures.
Second tier projects would be reviewed by the review board and subject to a public hearing. These projects include changing outside architectural details, installing fences or walls in the front of the lot, installing solar panels or wind turbines, and changing roof lines.
In the third tier, projects like new construction, additions, demolitions, moving a building, or constructing a new one would require review by a professional, plus the board and a public hearing. Homeowners would put money in escrow for the consultant.
Certificates would be valid for one year and could be extended for another before the homeowner would have to reapply unless “substantial” construction had begun.
A landowner who violated the ordinance would be fined.
Oechslie said the draft had been through legal review and seen minor administrative changes since her presentation to the planning board last month.
The fire station’s community room was filled for the public hearing Thursday. Nine commented against the draft and all were met with applause.
“This ordinance is not needed or wanted,” Glidden Street resident David Levesque said. “We trust our neighbors to do what is right for the neighborhood.”
Commenters including Erin Miller said they felt the ordinance was in opposition to the town’s core zoning code.
Miller also said she owns a house in the district that was built in 1969, making it “impossible” to come up with designs that would meet the requirements. She and others said history was a continuum.
Others objected to unspecified fees for a consultant, who the homeowner could not choose, and various language choices in the ordinance.
“I will fight this to the bitter end,” resident Stephen Popp said.
Board discussion followed about whether a vote was needed to move the ordinance to the select board, which is necessary to amend the core zoning code’s text or map; members voted as a safeguard.
To send the ordinance on, the planning board needed to find it was consistent with the adopted comprehensive plan, met the core zoning code, and met the purpose of the historic district.
“I have significant concerns about moving this forward,” planning board member Lee Emmons said. “Speaking for me, from what I heard tonight, there are going to be a lot of issues and potential for lawsuits, a lot of town resources getting sucked into this. So, it may be consistent with what we’re talking about, but I personally think it should stop here for now and we should reset.”
Board Chair Ben Frey said the ordinance has to be voted on by the entire town, and he felt not allowing further public comment “does a disservice to the rest of the voters.” He also said those at the meeting did not necessarily represent Newcastle as a whole, and that there was opportunity for public involvement earlier on.
“I don’t think it’s that unreasonable to say, ‘Hey, let’s follow the democratic process,’” he said.
The vote failed 2-2, with Emmons and Lucas Kostenbader voting against and Peter McNaughton absent.
Frey said the board’s job was to determine whether the draft met requirements, not to consider their feelings on it. He also read sections of the voter-approved comprehensive plan which focus on historic preservation.
A second motion with the same phrasing and an addendum for the select board noting the public opposition was passed unanimously.
“I don’t believe for a second that the majority of people out there are going to come support this,” Emmons said before the vote. “If there are all these people out there who love this ordinance, why didn’t they speak tonight? That speaks volumes to me as a resident.”
After select board review, that board will also hold a public hearing and set a special town meeting for public vote. The draft ordinance is available at newcastlemaine.us.
The Newcastle Planning Board next meets at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 19 in the Clayton V. Huntley Jr. Fire Station community room and online.