Portland council approves House Island historic status, business park property sale

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PORTLAND — House Island, the 26-acre Casco Bay site of military and immigration facilities, became the newest city historical district Monday by a unanimous City Council vote.

Councilors also approved the $625,000 sale of the first parcel in the the city’s designated technology business park to Auburn-based Patrons Oxford Insurance Co.

Support for creating the island historic district came during more than 20 minutes of public comment. Island owners Michael Scarks and Vincent and Christina Mona did not attend.

Scarks bought the island from former owner Harold Cushing in May 2014, and sold the northern half of the hourglass-shaped island to the Monas last September. The couple are principals in Naples, Florida-based Three Palms Design and have restored historic properties, including a home on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C

The new owners opposed the designation as it was considered by the city Historic Preservation Committee. They said their plans for renovation and possible new construction would maintain the historic integrity of the island.

The city Planning Board also endorsed the designation, which allows oversight by the HPC and Planning Board on site plans.

The southern end of House Island is occupied by Fort Scammell, first used in the War of 1812 and considered a part of city defenses into the 20th century. Scarks said last fall he understood and appreciated the historic nature of the fort, and it is not included in his development plans.

The northern half of the island was part of a network of immigration stations used from the 1890s through the mid-1920s. Remaining buildings are about a century old.

The military and social history of the island were highlighted by supporters of the historic designation, who warned a lack of protection could endanger its future.

“A group of school children walking around the island could experience a history lesson of several hundred years,” Peaks Island resident Arthur Fink, who is a former HPC member, said.

While moving to preserve the past, city councilors also launched the future of the technology park off Rand Road near the Maine Turnpike by agreeing to the sale of a 3.7-acre parcel for Patrons Oxford’s new headquarters.

Economic Development Director Greg Mitchell said the cash transaction will net the city $581,000 after a broker’s fee and as much as $60,000 in property tax revenue. The company is expected to build a 20,000-square-foot building and bring about 40 jobs to the city.

The city began developing the 26-acre business park in 2012, hoping to lure biotech or other high-tech industries. The first phase of development includes three sites and could be expanded to four more in a second phase.

Mitchell said the city has spent $695,000 developing the first phase, matching a grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration. The first phase is “fully permitted” Mitchell said, and includes a road and utilities.

Mayor Michael Brennan praised the sale, calling it a “watershed moment, an important component in the city’s economic development.” But Steven Scharf of High Street and Robert Hains of Holm Avenue asked why the city appears to have veered from the intended high-tech purpose of the development and why it is paying broker’s fees.

“We are selling to an insurance company whose one criteria is to be off the turnpike,” Scharf said, although he also praised the sale because it will produce property tax revenue.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

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Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.