Survey of historic architecture triggers Topsham zoning review

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TOPSHAM — The town has completed a survey of its historic architecture and is using the findings to amend some zoning language.

The year-long survey, which was finished in August, examined buildings in and adjacent to Topsham’s Historic District Overlay Zone. The Topsham Historic District Commission worked with consultant Scott Hanson to complete the survey, which followed Maine State Historic Commission guidelines.

The survey documented 248 structures, including houses, barns, carriage houses, sheds and garages, within the area of Topsham village. Of those, 157 “contributing” structures were deemed historic resources. They date from between 1784 and 1932, when the Frank Wood Bridge was constructed.

Main Street was realigned off the Mill Island at that point, and little new construction occurred during the Great Depression and World War II, according to Hanson’s report.

Construction resumed after the war, according to Assistant Planner Rod Melanson,  “and the architectural vernacular … completely changed, so there’s a significant historic character of that (preceding) time period.”

A $4,700 grant from the Maine Historic Preservation Commission in 2009 funded the survey, Melanson said. The town contributed in-kind contributions, such as volunteer efforts by Historic District Commission members and staff time.

The survey results provide Historic District Commission members and staff detailed information on the significance of Topsham structures when projects come under review. Homeowners also have better information, Melanson said.

Topsham has received another grant from the Maine Historic Preservation Commission, this time for $9,500, to review its Topsham’s Historic District Overlay zoning ordinance and to amend it to better reflect the knowledge gleaned from the survey, and continue to protect the town’s historic architectural resources, he explained.

The town will seek public input, with workshops throughout the winter and spring. The Planning Board will be involved, and the  proposed zoning changes will ultimately be decided at Town Meeting.

Planning Decisions will conduct the zoning review process and subcontract with Barba & Wheelock Architecture.

“It’s really trying to find the balance between being incredibly strict and incredibly lenient,” Melanson said. “… I’m trying to see, what’s the middle there, that people can live with and they’re happy with.”

The idea of an historic district “is to do a good job of being stewards for the cultural resource that exists,” Melanson said, noting that the survey showed that the integrity of the town’s historic district has remained largely intact.

Alex Lear can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 113 or

A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.