There has been confusion over North Yarmouth Historical’s ability to “save” older structures. This post is to let folks know just what NYHS can and cannot do, and to give some history around this issue.
Back in the 1980s, founding members of NYHS had several goals: protecting our town’s historical records, collecting and preserving items that relate to North Yarmouth’s history (diaries, photos, maps, family history, artifacts of all kinds), AND researching and advocating for the most visible historic items of all: the town’s older houses.
NYHS considered a local “historic preservation ordinance” for the town. The idea behind such an ordinance was/is that “a property owner requesting to make changes—usually exterior—to their locally designated historic home, would have to request approval of the action from a local board, committee, or commission.” (Maine Historic Preservation Commission).
The process to get this done involves many steps: identifying homes, establishing a district, getting support from residents, creating a governing body to oversee the ordinance, and voting it into existence. This was more than a group of volunteers was willing to undertake.
But there was another tool that could be used: putting a “Demolition Delay” clause into the town’s Land Use Ordinance. The 2003-2004 Comprehensive Plan Committee looked into this and the town instituted it in 2008. Here’s how it reads in our Land Use Ordinance:
“… When demolition is proposed for a building or structure that was constructed prior to 1900, the applicant must notify the North Yarmouth Historical Society in writing, and present evidence of such notification, at least 30 days prior to demolition. This provision will allow the Historical Society time to contact the owner regarding voluntary preservation of any items or structures with historical significance.”
North Yarmouth’s Code Enforcement Office maintains a property tax database in which all historic buildings/sites are flagged, so that when a demo permit is pulled, NYHS is notified. And we respond. Board members walk through the house, photographing original features of the building, talking to the owner, and recording any details that can be saved for the historical record.
NYHS does not have any legal authority to prevent a building being taken down or altered. Nor do we have money available for private individuals for renovating of older buildings. Every town with older historic homes would love to have a multi-million dollar fund for this purpose!
Owners of pre-1900s homes know that these often fragile building require time, sweat equity, and more dollars than anybody ever plans for. If ultimately the owner decides that the house will be taken down NYHS at least has been given the chance, thanks to our Ordinance, to document, dialogue, suggest a plan for salvage or other alternatives, if appropriate.
We can’t dictate what can and can’t be done to an older building—but we can work to preserve what we can, tell the story of our town’s deep history, and create respect for it. That’s what moving and renovating Old Town House is all about.
There are so many ways to support our town’s history and we’re the core organization to do just that. We can use everybody’s help with this. We need the town … and the town needs us!