An ordinance governing architectural decisions and establishing a review process for building owners in Newcastle’s three historic districts will be open for discussion at a public hearing set for Thursday, Sept. 21.
The Newcastle Planning Board set the hearing by unanimous vote at its Thursday, Aug. 17 meeting after a presentation on the draft historic special review ordinance developed by an ad hoc committee starting this February.
If voters approve the ordinance, building owners will need to seek town approval through a historic preservation review board “certificate of appropriateness” before making changes to their homes or lots. Different categories of changes would require different levels of review, with building owners providing funds in escrow for a professional review of the largest proposed projects.
The draft ordinance was presented to the board Thursday by Isabelle Oechslie, the town’s former planner, who was contracted to finish the project after her departure earlier this year.
If approved, the ordinance would establish a review board of five appointed members, including one each who lives in the town’s three historic districts, to approve or deny permit requests.
Newcastle currently has three zoned historic districts, Damariscotta Mills, Glidden Street, and Sheepscot Village. Zoning changes are approved by town voters.
Landowners outside of these districts could apply to add their properties to the zone, and thus ordinance’s authority, as standalone “local landmarks,” Oechslie said. Each parcel would need approval from town boards and eventually voters on a special town meeting warrant.
Newcastle’s comprehensive plan, which was approved by voters in 2020, lists historic preservation as a major priority. The plan was not approved by the state when first submitted and remains under review there after it was turned in with revisions this January, according to Town Planner Michael Martone.
As drafted, the new ordinance splits proposed changes into three tiers requiring different levels of review for approval. The standards were based on historic property rehabilitation standards from the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, according to Oechslie, which guide tax credit programs on federal and state levels.
In the first tier of projects, proposals would be reviewed by the town planner. Proposed tier one projects include removing or replacing non-historic features, installing features that are historic, building a deck or installing wiring not visible by the public, low walls or fences from natural materials 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 in addition to the board and a public hearing. The proposed ordinance could require the owner to put money in escrow to pay for this review.
Under the draft ordinance, a landowner in the district who violated it or did not carry out the terms of an approval certificate would be fined daily.
According to Oechslie, the ordinance was developed along the guidelines of the State Historic Preservation Office to make the town eligible for its Certified Local Government Program grants.
At the Aug. 17 meeting, Martone said he had concerns about the clarity of the historic standards, along with the meaning of some terms and measuring phrases such as the “relationship” between a building and its surroundings.
Martone said objectivity on these standards is important for the board to make clear and defensible decisions on applications.
Members also discussed whether the landmark process for adding parcels outside the historic districts would be considered “spot zoning,” changing specific parcel zoning for the benefit of one landowner. The practice is not directly illegal by state statute, but could be challenged in court.
Martone said in an email after the meeting that issues such as spot zoning vary by situation and would be best considered by an attorney, but he wanted to be sure the committee had considered potential issues in the ordinance and its implementation.
Oechslie said Aug. 17 the ordinance would go through legal review before the public hearing, which would address the spot zoning concern. She also said the landmark rezoning option could benefit the town as a whole, rather than undue benefit to the landowner, making it defensible.
Planning board Chair Ben Frey said the board had not considered the possibility of a spot zoning challenge when developing the landmark process.
Tor Glendenning, a select board member who was part of the ordinance development, said the ambiguity around terms like “character,” which might be considered vague, cannot be defined. The application process would create a “dialogue” between the owner and the review board about these terms, he said.
Oechslie’s contract for the ordinance also includes the development of a nonbinding manual for historic design guidelines to help building owners.
“It’s basically as good as it’s going to get,” Glendenning said of the ordinance, which has been through 10 drafts.
After legal review, the proposed will be available on the town website 14 days in advance of the hearing.
In other board business, Martone said plans are moving ahead for a pre-engineering study of intersection improvement options at Academy Hill/Route 215 and River Road/Route 1 through the state’s Village Partnership Initiative grant program. Through the grant, the Maine Department of Transportation and the town will share the cost of improvement projects involving state-owned roads.
The board also voted unanimously to recommend the town establish a formal joint housing committee with Damariscotta.
A public hearing for the historic special district review ordinance is set for the next regularly scheduled planning board meeting at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 21 in the community room of the Clayton V. Huntley Jr. Fire Station and online.