Carle Henry, standing in front of his home on St. Lawrence Street, is one of a group of neighborhood homeowners opposed to a proposed historic district on Portland’s Munjoy Hill. He says the designation is unnecessary because the neighborhood already is subject to new rules imposed in 2018 that discourage incompatible development. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

An effort to impose historic building restrictions on more than 400 homes in Portland’s Munjoy Hill neighborhood has drawn criticism from some residents who say the proposed changes are an unnecessary infringement upon property owners’ rights.

A group of preservation-minded residents and city officials is pushing for a historic district designation that they believe is necessary to preserve the neighborhood’s architectural history and aesthetic from redevelopment. If approved by the Portland City Council, the designation would require city approval to demolish or make significant exterior changes to most buildings within the district.

The proposed district was approved by the Portland Preservation Board in November and is scheduled to go before the Planning Board on Dec. 10. If it receives a recommendation, the measure would then go to the City Council at a later date.

Those who favor preservation said Munjoy Hill has been overlooked in the past for a historic district designation because its modestly designed homes, built primarily between 1850 and 1925, weren’t considered worthy of protection. But now, with real estate values skyrocketing and more developers finding opportunity in residential demolition and redevelopment, there is a growing recognition of their contribution to Portland’s unique look and feel.

“We’ve had a blight of people buying these small lots with these 19th century vernacular houses that kind of have a wonderful rhythm of their own up here – they aren’t John Calvin Stevens masterpieces, but they do form a very authentic fabric of 19th century middle-class life in Portland,” said Munjoy Hill homeowner Peter Murray. “And people will take a 4,000-square-foot lot and put a four-story, nine-unit condominium structure that comes right out to the lot edges and towers over the surrounding buildings and totally spoils the feeling of the 19th century workers’ neighborhood that really was part of the charm of this place.”

The proposed district’s rules would be the same as for the city’s 11 existing historic districts. It would officially recognize the neighborhood as worthy of preservation and make it more difficult for homes considered historic to be altered or demolished.

Homes within the district that are deemed too modern or too dilapidated would not be subject to the rules. A city-led survey of the neighborhood found that roughly 450 structures – about 85 percent of the proposed district – would be considered worthy of preservation.

Not everyone agrees that the Munjoy Hill historic district is a good idea.

Carle Henry, a Munjoy Hill homeowner and co-organizer of the pro-development group YIMBY Portland, said the proposed historic district designation is unnecessary because the neighborhood already is subject to new rules imposed in 2018 that discourage incompatible development. If the real objection is to developers putting up condo buildings on the hill, he said, there are other ways to prevent such projects without infringing on property owner’s rights.

Henry said the push for a district is being led by a small group of neighborhood activists who are using the threat of condos to impose their real agenda, which is to prevent other property owners from making design choices that don’t line up with the group’s personal tastes and preferences.

“It really is a group of about eight or 10 people who have brought this whole thing forward,” Henry said. “They have now decided that this hill has to become historic – not for business reasons, not to achieve the goals of the city to address the housing crisis or climate change. It’s really purely for what they believe are aesthetics.”

Neighborhood resident Lori Rounds, who demolished a previously neglected 1870s home she purchased on the hill in 2017 to build a more modern house, said she and her husband have faced the pro-preservation group’s wrath.

“We’ve had some hostile encounters with neighborhood folks at various public meetings,” she said. “We’ve received some nasty, shaming emails, as well.”

Rounds emphasized that most residents of the neighborhood have been warm and welcoming.

Murray, a board member of the Munjoy Hill Neighborhood Organization, said he hasn’t witnessed any bullying or harassment by neighbors who support the historic district. Murray said it is normal for some residents to react negatively to the idea of imposing new rules, but that existing historic districts in Portland have garnered overwhelming community support after homeowners realized the benefits they provide, such as protecting property values.

He noted that there will be multiple opportunities for residents on both sides of the issue to voice their opinions and concerns in front of the Planning Board and City Council before a final decision is made.

Julie Larry, director of advocacy for historic preservation group Greater Portland Landmarks, said her organization has been hosting informational meetings about the proposed district, and that the discussions have been overwhelmingly positive.

Larry said many residents and city officials recognize that Munjoy Hill is at a crossroads because of the recent surge in development. There may not be another chance in the future to preserve the characteristics that make the neighborhood special, she said.

Larry said Portland leaders ultimately will have to decide the best way to balance the rights of individual property owners with the desire to preserve an important and desirable component of the city’s urban character and legacy.

“There have been some demolitions; there certainly have been a lot of alterations,” she said. “This is a unique period in time for Munjoy Hill. There’s a lot of transition going on, and what’s the best way to manage that transition from a city perspective?”

Longtime Munjoy Hill resident Jay Norris said he supports the proposed district, even with the knowledge that it could restrict him from making some desired changes to his property. Norris said he’s actually surprised that the debate over historic preservation on Munjoy Hill has been relatively cordial thus far.

Norris, a former longtime leader of the Munjoy Hill Neighborhood Organization, said he has reviewed the proposed rules for the district and found them to be reasonable and not overly intrusive upon individual property rights. He said he has attended several neighborhood meetings on the issue and seen many initially reluctant residents come around to supporting it.

“I think as people figured it out, they saw that, ‘OK, this is not as invasive as I thought. I thought they were going to bowl over this neighborhood, and that’s not what’s happening,’ ” he said. “If it were, I would be lobbying and screaming at our City Council and Planning Board to shoot it down.”

This story was updated at 1 p.m. Dec. 6 to clarify that the proposed district would be subject to the same rules as other historic districts in Portland.

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