BIDDEFORD – Aurelie Wallach, head of Biddeford’s Historic Preservation Commission, believes that taking steps to ensure the city’s most historic buildings are protected is not only the right thing to do from an aesthetic point of view, but also from an economic one.
That’s why she’s supporting a new ordinance that would make a review by the commission mandatory for proposed renovations or alterations of any building or other structure within the city’s historic districts or which is on the National Historic Register.
During a Planning Board public hearing last week on the proposed ordinance, which would require developers and property owners to seek a certificate of appropriateness from the preservation commission before doing any work on historic buildings, Wallach pointed out several success stories.
One of those was the renovation of the Mills at Saco Falls into apartments. Wallach said the mill was valued at $389,000 before the work began and now it’s worth $6 million.
She also said that tourists prefer traditional downtowns, and argued the new ordinance would allow Biddeford to protect its most important historic assets.
Delilah Poupore, the executive director of the Heart of Biddeford, the city’s downtown revitalization organization, agreed. The new ordinance, she said, would “guarantee that buildings really valued by the community would not be destroyed.”
She also said that since the Heart of Biddeford is a preservation-based organization it is “behind this important endeavor.”
In addition, Poupore told the Planning Board that requiring developers and business owners to conform to preservation standards is not necessarily more expensive.
After the meeting, Poupore said historic preservation is directly linked to positive economic growth. She also said the new ordinance would act as an insurance policy and protect the investments many property owners have already made in their buildings.
Poupore also likes the part of the new ordinance that would require the Historic Preservation Commission to be staffed with someone from the planning department, which she believes would allow for more professionalism and more consistency in applying preservation standards to proposed projects.
“We’ve lucked out so far that property owners are interested in betterment and in not tearing down old buildings as in so many other communities,” she added.
And, like Wallach, Poupore said, “the greenest buildings are those that are already built.”
Jeff Cabral, the director of the McArthur Public Library and a member of Biddeford’s Historic Preservation Commission, said he supports the proposed ordinance not just because he’s a member of the commission but also because he truly believes in the idea.
“The new ordinance is about restoration, adaptive reuse and a collaborative approach that’s good for the city and the environment,” he said.
“This (legislation) is long overdue and is a key piece to intelligent economic development,” Cabral added. “This is not anti-business or anti-development. The data proves (mandatory historic preservation) does not lead to empty storefronts.”
Paul McDonough, a former member of the preservation commission and a former teacher at Biddeford High School, said that while he was teaching Maine and local history, he came to “appreciate the intrinsic value of (the city’s) historic structures. They have a beauty and a longevity missing from many modern buildings.”
He also said the city’s oldest buildings “have an important story to tell” and argued the new ordinance would make sure those buildings are not destroyed and the investments made by many property owners in the historic districts are protected.
“We have something here that needs to be protected,” McDonough said.
Roxanne Elfin, a senior program director for the Maine Development Foundation’s Maine Downtown Center, was also on hand during last week’s public hearing.
She said the goal of historic preservation is to bring investment into the downtown.
“I applaud your efforts here,” Elfin told the Planning Board.
The only person to speak in opposition to the proposed ordinance was Bil Moriarty, a member of the School Committee and a local businessman.
He said there are too many empty storefronts on Main Street already and adding another layer of review would only see that trend continue.
Moriarty, who is a former member of the Historic Preservation Commission, said while he supports maintaining Biddeford’s past, business owners in downtown have told him the most difficult part of any redevelopment project is going through the preservation commission.
“We need to start thinking about how to bring business and jobs here. I just think this might not be the right tack to take,” he said.
At the end of the public hearing, the Planning Board unanimously gave the new ordinance a positive recommendation and forwarded it to the City Council for review during its meeting on Tuesday, April 2, at 7 p.m.