Scarborough weighs architectural standards at Higgins Beach

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SCARBOROUGH — Property owners at Higgins Beach and town staff have reached a consensus: zoning at the beach is outdated and convoluted.

A possible solution was presented to property owners Tuesday night by Town Planner Dan Bacon at the Higgins Beach Clubhouse. 

The beach neighborhood is loosely considered to include the area east of Spurwink Road, bordered on the southwestern side by Piper Road and on the northeastern side by the Spurwink River. Most of the approximate 350 properties sit on streets off Ocean and Greenwood avenues. 

Many of the neighborhood buildings date back to the early and mid 20th century, Bacon said. Much of the zoning for the neighborhood hasn’t been updated in nearly 50 years.

The current setbacks and lot-size restrictions “limit how additions, renovations, and new construction can occur on existing lots and cause either unorthodox building designs and/or complicated and uncertain appeals for variances from the Board of Appeals to make changes,” Bacon wrote in an overview of the new “character-based code” for the area.

Russell Preston, founder of the Portland-based Principle Group, an architectural and design group assisting in the zoning review, told property owners at Tuesday’s meeting that “the zoning code for this neighborhood is broken.” Repairing zoning codes will help to “guide the future of Higgins Beach,” he said. 

The Sept. 1 meeting was a continuation of a weekend-long charette that took place in June. Having heard feedback from property owners from that event, Preston and his team presented a preliminary zoning draft broken down into new zones, like a Seaside Mixed-Use-Limited, which would theoretically include coastal cottages, inns, bungalows, and shop houses.

The aim of the new zoning is to provide more specific directives for architectural aesthetics, like porches, gables, dormer windows and balconies, and to improve the overall process of getting new construction or additions approved by the town, Preston said. 

A few residents at the meeting, however, expressed concern about the potential for the new zoning to become restrictive in an effort to preserve the historic character of the neighborhood. 

“We don’t want Higgins Beach to become a Nantucket,” one woman said, and “we’re getting pretty close with (these) aesthetic standards.”

Preston said the proposed zoning is somewhere in the middle: “We’ve defined ranges; there is some push and pull,” he said.

Walter Wilson, architectural designer and founder of the Design Co. in Saco, also criticized the restrictions. “Basically the houses are boxes. No one builds them like this anymore. It stymies the architectural growth of the building,” he said. “What you’re ending up with is boxes decorated with porches and gables.” 

Historically, residential architecture in that neighborhood has been boxy, Preston said. In that sense, “basic boxes are really important to that character.”

If anything, Preston said, starting with the basic box model will require property owners to “be more creative” to overcome possible architectural constraints. 

For most of the other property owners in the room, retaining the collective character is what mattered more than the alternative. “The character of the beach is more important than being a playground for architects that want to be the next John Calvin Stevens,” one person said. 

Feedback will continue to be collected from property owners through September, and the draft will continue to be tweaked, Bacon said Wednesday morning. The first draft is slated to be presented to the Town Council at some point in October. 

Alex Acquisto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or Follow Alex on Twitter: @AcquistoA

An aerial view shows much of the Higgins Beach neighborhood in Scarborough. Town staff and outside architectural designers are working to update much of the property zoning to protect the neighborhood’s historic character. 

South Portland and Scarborough reporter for The Forecaster. Graduate of Western Kentucky University and the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. Alex can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106.