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February 15, 2019

Two historic preservation bills are aimed at economic impact

Photo / Maureen Milliken Tiffany Chapel, in Sidney, was added to the National Register of Historic Places in December.

Two bills in the Legislature that would make it easier to preserve and develop historic property would have far-reaching economic impact in the state, supporters said.

Legislative hearings were held this week on L.D. 126, which will renew a bond issue from 2010 that helps developers buy historic property, and L.D. 423, which will help preserve historic property listed on or eligible for the National Register of Historic Places and is aimed at boosting tourism.

Both bills focus on preserving and rehabilitating “some of Maine’s most significant and diverse buildings” while being “powerful tools for local economic and community revitalization,” said Maine Preservation, which supports both bills.

At hearings before the state Committee on Appropriations and Finance, a representative of the Maine Real Estate and Development Association also spoke in support.

Elizabeth Frazier, an attorney with Pierce Atwood, testified on behalf of MEREDA for both bills Tuesday in Augusta.

She said the group’s members “endorse policies that stimulate the repurposing of existing buildings. Not only does it lead to efficient use of existing infrastructure, it also helps prevent sprawl.”

Both bills are still in committee.

Historic buildings ‘need new owners’

L.D. 126 would replace the $1.25 million Historic Preservation Revolving Fund with the Historic Places for Maine's Future Fund, and refund it. The bond was approved in 2010, but then frozen by Gov. Paul LePage until a rule could be developed for their use. After the rule was approved, $200,000 was used before the rest of the fund expired.

The fund would be used by nonprofit organizations and local governments to acquire significant historic properties, stabilize or rehabilitate them, and then sell them at or above appraised value to private owners who agree to preserve and rehabilitate them.

“Most of our communities have well-built historic buildings that need new owners who have the skills, means and energy to rehabilitate and preserve them,” said state Rep. Deane Rykerson, D-Kittery, who sponsors L.D. 126 and L.D. 423.

On Tuesday, Rykerson told the committee, “The bill helps an organization or government work voluntarily with the owner in order to put such a building back into active use by selling to new private owners who use their own funds to fix them.”

After transaction expenses are covered, the remaining money from the sale of the property is put back into the fund for use on other property.

“The private dollars the new owners then invest into the building to fix it up puts the building back into active use and raises the local property tax base,” he said.

L.D. 423 is a $5 million bond that provides matching grants for rehabilitation of property listed on or eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. The effort is tied to the state’s bicentennial, which is next year.

The bill has a focus on the state’s maritime and agricultural history — up to 20% of the funding will be for preservation of privately owned historic property that has a significant association with either of the two industries, which are represented on the state’s gfag, the bill’s sponsor said.

“The purpose of this funding is for qualified nonprofit organizations and local governments to preserve significant properties that are listed or eligible to be listed in the National Register of Historic Places,” Rykerson, who also sponsors this bill, to the Appropriations Committee.

“Partnering with the Bicentennial Commission, the Maine Office of Tourism, the various regional tourism councils and others, Maine will be making a significant heritage tourism push in 2020,” he said. “This bill provides an opportunity to preserve some of Maine's most important places, enriching our efforts to share our collective history and ensuring they there for our tricentennial.”

‘We’ve seen the success’

Frazier, speaking in support of L.D. 126, told the committee, “There are historic properties, including mills, schools, libraries and old homes throughout the state. Unfortunately, many of those historic properties are no longer in use, are rundown, or are in danger of being torn down and replaced with new construction.

“We have already seen the success of restoring historic properties in Maine, from the revitalization of many of our former mills to the conversion of old schools into affordable housing for seniors. Investments in rehabilitating historic properties also attract economic growth to their communities,” she said. “ln addition to the vendors, suppliers and trades people who work on these projects, some rehabilitation projects have brought new business and jobs to the community — hotels, restaurants, retail stores, and new commercial business activities.

Nancy Smith, of Grow Smart Maine, and Greg Paxton, of Maine Preservation, also spoke in support of both bills.

Paxton said that the addition of rehabilitation of the property to allowed expenses from last session’s similar bill is a plus.

“Some of these properties need work in order to be marketable,” he said. Similar to Land for Maine’s Future, this bill allows for preservation easements to be acquired on buildings not being sold, in order to guarantee their protection based on the owners wishes.

“There are organizations all over the country that have successfully completed thousands of similar projects and there are hundreds of properties across Maine that this can program apply to,”” he said.

He said, in general, historic buildings in need of preservation is are in a condition that’s “challenging for the normal real estate market.”

He said, though, that Maine Preservation, which focuses on prospective buyers who are looking for historic properties to rehabilitate, “has found there is an extensive market of individuals looking for these types of properties.”

‘No better way to celebrate our history’

Rykerson said that L.D. 423 is also tied to the state’s tourism market.

Referencing the upcoming state bicentennial, he said, “There is no better way for Mainers to celebrate our history than to invest in preserving significant places at the community level. All Maine residents, businesses and millions of visitors will join us in remembering our past, celebrating our present and envisioning our future. This bill will provide for the protection of our historic properties the spaces and places that tell our stories and shape our identity.”

He said with tourism as “the No. 1 driver of Maine's economy,” studies show that tourists who in whole or in part visit a place to explore its collective heritage, stay longer and spend more money.

“We have a unique opportunity with the bicentennial to further our heritage tourism efforts, and preserving our built environment, as this bill encourages,” he said.

Frazier, of MEREDA, said, “As Maine approaches the bicentennial of its statehood, we are reminded of the stories and sacrifices that brought about the Missouri Compromise and gave Maine its much sought-after independence from Massachusetts.

“Today, outside of the libraries, the history books, and the museums, this history is told in the meeting houses, mills, libraries and homes of the men and women who lived during those formative days and unlike words on a page, these properties are irreplaceable, and forge a physical connection to our past that we must protect for future generations.”

She said that the bond would preserve property that is not eligible for other tax or development incentives.

“In preserving these properties, we would also be investing in the towns and communities they are in by encouraging nonprofit investment in partnership with the state,” she said.

Last year, 11 new Maine listings were added to the National Register of Historic Places, including large property like Lewiston’s downtown historic district to tiny Tiffany Chapel, in Sidney.

According to the state, a listing:

  • Encourages the preservation of historic properties by documenting the significance of historic properties and by lending support to local preservation activities.
  • Enables federal, state, and local agencies to consider historic properties in the early stages of planning projects.
  • Provides for review of federally funded, licensed, or sponsored projects which may affect historic properties.
  • Makes owners of historic properties eligible to apply for grants for preservation activities.
  • Encourages the rehabilitation of income-producing historic properties which meet preservation standards through tax incentives.

The National Register is administered by the National Park Service, which is part of the U.S. Department of the Interior. In Maine, the Maine Historic Preservation Commission, oversees the administration of program.

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