CALAIS, Maine — It’s an issue Calais officials, property owners and business people have been dealing with for more than a year — how to revise the city’s revitalization ordinance in order to address the problem of dilapidated buildings downtown.
Finally, a proposal is on the table, and the City Council will hold a public hearing on the changes — recommended by the Planning Board — on May 8.
Owners of business properties in Calais and other small communities have been caught — like homeowners — in a squeeze in recent years of declining property values and an economic downturn. The issue of how to get owners to maintain their buildings — either by providing them with incentives to help them or penalizing them to force them to take action — even divided business owners.
Although the city has a revitalization ordinance that was adopted in 1996, one thing people on both sides of the issue agree on is that it is ineffective.
The proposal that will be aired at the public hearing simplifies and shortens the city’s existing ordinance, explained assistant city manager Jim Porter, the city’s development director who also handles code enforcement duties. It still requires him to evaluate buildings and issue corrective measures.
“In the end, it’s still going to have the same effect,” said Porter Thursday, requiring property owners to address needed repairs. “If they don’t, there are going to be consequences and penalties.”
The proposed ordinance increases penalties for noncompliance from $10-$100 per day to $50-$500.
Another significant difference is in the dollar threshold for projects that triggers required approval by either Porter or the Planning Board. Under the existing ordinance, if a property owner’s plan called for improvements exceeding $1,000, it requires approval of the Planning Board. Under the proposed ordinance, that figure is raised to $7,500; projects under that amount could be approved by Porter, a much faster process.
Deadlines were not changed. After receiving written notice of noncompliance from Porter, a property owner has 30 days to submit an application and preliminary plans for minor repairs or 90 days for more significant projects. Owners have 120 days from date of plan approval to comply in the case of minor repairs and one year for bigger projects.
However, a revision allows the Planning Board to grant extensions “for good cause” for an additional 12 months or longer.
The existing ordinance contains no “trigger” requiring Porter to inspect every building again, but the new version does. The lack of period inspections is “probably the reason why we got in this situation,” said Porter.
The ordinance has been trimmed from about 22-23 pages down to 12 pages, noted Herm Gadway, a member of the Planning Board. The direction the board received from City Council was that it “wanted us to thin down” the ordinance, Gadway said Wednesday. The changes streamlined and modernized the ordinance, he said.
“We’ve very pleased,” with the new ordinance,” said Joan Perry, chairman of the Calais Downtown Revitalization Coalition, whose members include business people as well as other residents. The coalition was “quite involved” in the process of developing the revisions, she said Wednesday, and is “very supportive” of the proposal.
“We’re hoping that this is really going to get everybody on board with helping make downtown a better place,” said Perry.
The former City Council did not want to get involved in the issue, Councilor Anne Nixon said Wednesday, because they didn’t view the city as being “in the real estate business.”
“Every city’s in the real estate business,” observed Nixon. “You have to look after your city, and the buildings are part of it. You can’t just let it go.”
The key to any revitalization ordinance is enforcement, said Nixon. “I don’t think it’s going to change much unless it’s enforced the way it should be.”
“It’s got to be enforced,” she added. “That’s the main thing.”
At the same time, the city’s role should be one of a facilitator of improvements, suggested Nixon. “I think the city needs to step up to the plate and be more helpful.” Instead of simply giving property owners a notice of noncompliance and a deadline to correct deficiencies or face penalties, the city may have to grant more leeway and provide advice to property owners, said Nixon.
The city also is moving forward with a related program. It received a $200,000 community development block grant to help property owners make improvements to building facades. Porter was awaiting approval from state historic preservation officials of the 13 proposed improvement projects.
Building owners apply for funds under the program, and the city may award a grant of up to $25,000; the owner has to provide 50 percent matching funds. Owners will be reimbursed with grant funds once their project is completed.
Once approved, the projects will go out to bid. Porter expects construction to begin in June on some projects.
“We expect to see a big difference, especially some of the buildings we’ve had problems with,” said Porter.
A notable beneficiary of the program will be a three-story building on Main Street at the corner of North Street. The city has blocked off the sidewalk next to the building on the North Street side because pieces of brick veneer have come loose and fallen. The sidewalk has been blocked off since the summer of 2012. The building owner tentatively has been awarded a grant under the facade improvement program to repair the brick veneer.
Some buildings need much more than just repairs to the facade, noted Nixon; they require major structural repairs. “If they don’t hurry up and do something, we’re going to have a lot of parking lots,” she said.
“If the community doesn’t step up … we’re going to lose the historic buildings we have downtown,” said Nixon.
The Planning Board began considering revisions to the city’s revitalization ordinance in February of last year and began a review in earnest the following month.