BIDDEFORD – City officials are considering a new ordinance to strengthen the Historic Preservation Commission’s role in reviewing changes to historic buildings.
Under the plan, any project in Biddeford’s downtown or mill area would require review and approval by the Historic Preservation Commission, which is now only advisory.
Developers and investors are increasingly focused on projects in the downtown, home to some of Biddeford’s oldest buildings and former textile mills.
City Planner Greg Tansley said the community’s love of its history and heritage was evident in recent years during a downtown master planning process. In meetings held as part of that process, people frequently described Biddeford’s architecture and rich history of textile manufacturing as assets.
“It’s really something that was perhaps overdue in people’s minds,” Tansley said of the plan to give the Historic Preservation Commission more say in projects. “I think there’s an awful lot of opportunities and redevelopment potential in the downtown right now. In my opinion, it’s timely to look at this.”
The Planning Board will hold a public hearing on the proposed ordinance at 6 p.m. Wednesday. The board will then forward its recommendation to the City Council.
The Historic Preservation Commission now has no legal authority to influence the way developers change buildings, though it can make recommendations or give advice.
If the proposed ordinance is enacted, any project in any of the city’s three Main Street Revitalization Districts will need a certificate of appropriateness from the commission.
Those districts encompass the downtown commercial core, the mill district and residential areas immediately around the downtown.
While major projects would require review by the entire commission, smaller projects — like new signs — would be reviewed by Tansley and the commission chairman in two to three days. That process would help prevent unnecessary delays for businesses, Tansley said.
The Historic Preservation Commission wants authority to issue certificates of appropriateness to protect and preserve structures in the historic district while protecting and enhancing the character of the neighborhoods, Tansley said.
Aurelie Wallach, chairwoman of the commission, said she “certainly” supports a stronger ordinance at a time when developers are restoring historic buildings and other cities have strong ordinances to guide redevelopment.
“Right now tourists are looking for more traditional downtowns,” she said. “We have so much to preserve here, it’s real-ly remarkable.”
Wallach said Biddeford still has many historic architectural features.
“Because it was a mill town and sometimes people didn’t have money to modernize, they’d keep the buildings as they were,” she said. “Consequently, we have a lot of buildings with original features. But gradually they are disappearing.” Tansley said some residents have “raised alarms” about historic preservation after seeing some buildings fall into disrepair because of neglect. He cited the Lincoln Mill clock tower, which is on the ground next to the mill, as a visible example of such neglect.
The building’s owners have said that they want to restore the clock tower but it is an expensive undertaking.
“I think that (clock tower) hit some people in the heart when it came to historic preservation,” Tansley said. “Once you lose it, you can’t get it back.”
Bob Mills, a city councilor whose ward includes the downtown, said the proposed ordinance is “a progressive step forward” for Biddeford.
Though there has been little public feedback to date, Mills said, he has heard concerns about adding a layer of bureaucracy or delaying projects.
He said he thinks the new process would actually speed things up because people who make simple requests for new signs would no longer have to wait for the entire Historic Preservation Commission to meet.
“This is a drastic change, and I think it’s going to be a positive one,” Mills said.
Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at: