Yarmouth throws historic buildings a lifeline

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YARMOUTH — The Town Council on July 26 unanimously adopted an ordinance amendment to prevent historic buildings from being torn down for up to nine months, and in some cases indefinitely. 

Ford Reiche, of Freeport, also informed the council during last week’s meeting that he has reached an agreement for Gorham Savings Bank to lease space in the 112-year-old Grand Trunk Railroad depot, which he is planning to preserve and convert into office space.

The amended Chapter 701 of town zoning prohibits the demolition of any building or structure within the demolition delay overlay zone that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places or is determined by the Maine Historic Preservation Commission to be eligible for listing on the register.

There are 11 buildings in Yarmouth already listed on the historic register, with more eligible. 

They include the Capt. S. C. Blanchard House, 46 Main St.; Camp Hammond, 74 Main St.; Central Parish Church, 146 Main St.; First Parish Congregational Church, 135 Main St.; the Grand Trunk Railroad Station; Capt. Reuben Merrill House, 97 W. Main St.; Mitchell House, 40 Main St.; North Yarmouth Academy, 148 Main St.; North Yarmouth and Freeport Baptist Meetinghouse, 25 Hillside St., and the Cushing and Hannah Prince House, 189 Greely Road.

The ordinance as amended also postpones demolition of buildings or structures that are at least 75 years old and are partially or wholly in the town’s demolition delay overlay zone. It gives the Planning Board an initial 90 days to determine if the structure to be demolished is a “building of value.” If not, demolition may proceed.

If within the 90 days the building is declared a building of value, a demolition permit would not be granted for an additional 180 days while the applicant, the Planning Board and any related parties brainstorm alternatives that could preserve, rehabilitate, relocate or restore the structure.

In no event could the cumulative total delay period exceed 270 days from the date of an application for a demolition permit, unless otherwise agreed to in writing by the applicant.

Town Planner Alex Jaegerman said those who want to appeal the Planning Board’s designation of a building, either of value or not of value, may do so in Superior Court, “as is the case with any Planning Board decisions for site plan review.” 

Two exceptions to the ordinance are if a variance is granted by the Board of Appeals or if the applicant provides convincing evidence that the building is unsafe and poses an imminent threat to public health and safety.

The Board of Appeals may grant a variance if the ordinance would cause “undue hardship” to the applicant or their property. In order to do so, the board must find that the lot in question can’t produce reasonable return unless a variance is granted, a variance is due to unique circumstances of the lot and “not the general conditions in the neighborhood” and will not alter the essential character of the locality, and that the hardship is not the result of an action taken by the applicant or previous owner. 

Town Manager Nat Tupper said, if it’s an “argument about hardship, it’s handled locally.” However, if it’s a disagreement over the value of the structure, that must be handled in Superior Court. 

Railroad depot

The Village Improvement Society announced in June that Reiche had been selected out of 14 bidders who submitted offers to preserve and use the historic Main Street station as office space. 

Reiche on Thursday said the contract with the VIS is still pending, but he is well into the planning process for the space and is “excited to get to a handshake” with Gorham Savings Bank, which purchased and restored the Grand Trunk Railway Co. building on Commercial Street in Portland in 2016. 

“They’re committed to the railroad station and the park here. That’s an ongoing discussion,” he said. “… Gorham Savings is not going to be a traditional bank … They see this as a community outreach post.”

Reiche said a site plan application for the depot was submitted to the Planning Board on July 25, and would be taken up Aug. 22. 

The Canadian National Railway built the station and owned it for more than 60 years until the railroad stopped running trains to Yarmouth. To save the building from being demolished, VIS bought the building for $500 in 1968.

In 1979, the train depot was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

For more than 40 years, the society leased the space to Village Florist, which did not renew its lease last year.

Reiche said his contract to purchase the property from VIS, as well as the lease agreement with Gorham Savings Bank, are both contingent on working out what he called a “complicated land problem:” Much of the land under and surrounding the station is either owned by the town or the state.

“All that was ever sold to the VIS was the building and half the footprint,” he said in June. “We’ve got this great building and this great location and a very complicated real estate deal.”

The train depot is part of the Protect and Sell Program at Maine Preservation, which connects sellers with buyers who want to rehabilitate historic properties. The Yarmouth-based nonprofit will also hold preservation easements on the property. The easements will allow renovations to be made to make the building more functional, but require any proposed changes to be reviewed and will protect the building from demolition.

Landscape architect Sarah Witte said she is excited about the plan, which proposes renovations to the building as well as the park space in front of it. 

“It’s really a new, revitalized inner village that we’re looking at,” Witte said. 

Although required maintenance of the building’s interior and exterior – paint, windows, and lighting and plumbing fixtures – will be “a significant cost,” Reiche said, their appearance will be maintained.

This will be the fifth property listed on the National Register of Historic Places that Reiche has worked to rehabilitate. In 2015, he paid $238,000 to purchase and restore Halfway Rock Light Station off Harpswell, which was abandoned by the U.S. Coast Guard in 1975.

He has also rehabilitated a historic train station on the Grand Trunk Line in Gilead that now serves as the Gilead Historical Society’s headquarters, as well as the Charles B. Clark House in Portland.

Jocelyn Van Saun can be reached at 781-3661, ext. 183 or jvansaun@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter @JocelynVanSaun.

Ford Reiche told the Yarmouth Town Council last week that he has reached an agreement for Gorham Savings Bank to lease space in the 112-year-old Grand Trunk Railroad depot on Main Street.

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