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March 23, 2021

Maine historic preservation 5-year development plan addresses inclusion, diversity

A three story clapboard building with the first story bright red break and a peaked roof with a large sign across the front that says abyssinian meeting house Photo / Maureen Milliken The draft of the five-year Maine Historic Preservation Commission Heritage for the Future plan includes a look at filling context gaps for the state's historic African-American and Native American historic sites.

The Maine Historic Preservation Commission's new five-year plan, which helps guide preservation development in the state, has something earlier plans didn't — a focus on the context gaps that have left some history by the wayside.

The study, required every five years by the National Park Service, which oversees the commission, helps provide a framework not only for the state agency itself, but for developers, municipalities, nonprofits and property owners that undertake historic preservation work.

The Heritage for the Future 2021-2026 plan, among its many focuses, seeks to address omissions of historic sites related to the state's native people and African-American population, early French and German historic sites and specifics about the contributions by women and others.

The commission has been compiling the plan over the past year, though initial work began several years ago. Public comments on the 56-plage plan, which can be found by clicking here, are accepted until April 9. The commission is also holding a public Zoom meeting at 1 p.m. Tuesday, April 6. The plan will then be reviewed for approval by the National Park Service.

The state commission oversees a variety of historic preservation projects, including the state's National Register of Historic Places. A listing on the register is necessary for developers to get Historic Preservation Tax Credits, which have generated $166 million in local property taxes.

Use of the five-year plan by municipalities, developers, nonprofits and others pursuing historic preservation development is encouraged, Christi Chapman-Mitchell, assistant director of the state commission, told Mainebiz last fall.

Chapman-Mitchell said that the scope of historic preservation in the state goes far beyond what the state commission does, and the results of the study are for anyone with a stake in historic preservation.

"Every community values its historic properties," she said. "It's not just about the economic benefits."

The plan, in its introduction, says it provides a framework for "the many people, communities, organizations, and agencies that preserve, reuse, and promote Maine’s historic places" and should be used in whatever way works best for specific projects.

The 2021-26 plan includes an updated list of contacts for developers and others looking for help with historic preservation work.

More context means diversity, inclusion

The plan also seeks to develop more context for historic preservation to identify the types of sites that are poorly represented or not represented at all in the state inventory, first complied in the 1970s, as well as future research needs.  

Major gaps in the archaeological inventory include resources associated with historic Native American domestic sites, African-American sites and early French and German sites, the plan says.

There are also issues related to specific sites that illustrate larger omissions. For instance, the Chester Greenwood House in Farmington listing had to be updated to include additional areas of significance, specifically that Greenwood's wife, Isabel, was prominent in Maine’s suffrage movement, but wasn't originally mentioned.

Omissions also lead to larger issues, including future preservation focuses. For instance, information about coastal shell midden sites, left by the state's native people centuries ago, is inadequate, making it hard to prioritize and make decisions for dealing with the effects of coastal erosion, and information from the sites is being lost.

"Rectifying these gaps will help to illuminate Maine’s multifaceted heritage," the study says.

Chapman-Mitchell said in October that earlier plans didn't reference inclusivity and diversity. "This is a great time to be writing our next plan," she said. As the plan offers guidance for the future, "I think that's important."

Delayed by a pandemic

In general, objectives and suggested actions range from identifying historic properties and sponsoring educational programs to addressing vandalism of culturally significant property and working to mitigate and adjust to climate change.

Elizabeth Muzzey, one of the authors of the plan, told Mainebiz in October that people in Maine are passionate about historic preservation, and the request for input got a strong response. "There is strong, strong support for historic preservation and historic planning," she said. "People feel very strongly about it."

Historic preservation isn't a niche in Maine. As of Dec. 31, there were 190 historic districts and more than 1,475 individual properties in Maine listed in the National Register of Historic Places, including 44 National Historic Landmarks, 20 vessels, 128 archaeological sites, and a wide range of property types. Many towns and cities have historic building recognition programs, often highlighting property of historic interest with signs, markers or plaques. 

The study was originally due for National Park Service review last fall, but the state got a one-year extension because of the pandemic.

Pre-pandemic plans were to hold public meetings in historic properties across the state, but that was scrapped in favor of Zoom listening sessions that ended in October. Those were done in partnership with the Maine Development Foundation, Maine Downtown Centers, Maine Preservation Greater Portland Landmarks, the city of Bangor, Acadia National Park and the St. Croix Island International Historic Site.

The online sessions allowed a new approach, targeting audiences by affinity group rather than by location. The four sessions were for staff and volunteers from municipal and county governments, people who work in professions that partner on preservation projects, nonprofit historic preservation staff and volunteers and the general public.

Discussion themes included identifying and designating historic places, preserving and rehabilitating property, supporting and expanding Maine's preservation community, and resilience and climate change.

A topic for everyone

An online survey, open to the public, found that more than 200 respondents feel Maine's downtowns and village centers most "identify" the state; downtowns and villages are also among the top historic property types considered the most threatened.

Planners wanted to hear about successes, and where state preservation efforts should be heading, Chapman-Mitchell said. "There are a lot of small towns, with small properties, there are professionals who make their money from historic preservation, there are agencies that have to take historic preservation into account," she said.

The study includes first-person accounts of preservation, including from Renys. Many of the chain's 17 stores are in renovated historic downtown buildings. Other accounts highlight the town of Yarmouth's preservation efforts, the Rangeley Inn, Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument and the Maine Downtown Center.

Besides Muzzey and Chapman-Mitchell, authors are Kirk Mahoney and Megan Rideout, also of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission. Representatives of nonprofit and development organizations comprised a 12-member steering committee, and a lengthy list of tribal, state and federal partners also weighed in.

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