September 23, 2019
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Portland’s bid to make House Island a historic district could thwart plans of new owner who paid $2.5 million

PORTLAND, Maine — Development planned by the new owner of 24-acre House Island may face additional scrutiny as the city tries to designate the island a historic district.

A hearing will be held Wednesday, Sept. 3, at City Hall to gather public opinion on the designation, which ultimately requires City Council approval.

The island, privately owned by the Cushing family for 60 years, was sold to Michael Scarks of Neptune Properties at the end of May for $2.5 million.

Scarks on Monday said he would like to build a home for himself and has “very preliminary” plans to build up to four more homes on 12 acres on the northern end of the hourglass-shaped island near Peaks and Cushing islands.

If those plans come to fruition, he said, he would also like to add more boat slips at an existing pier.

“It certainly puts things on hold or adds a question mark,” Scarks said of the city’s move. “I don’t really know what the outcome will be or what the limitations or possibilities are.”

The island was nominated July 16 for designation as a historic district by Historic Preservation Board members Penny Pollard and Bruce Wood. The nomination was reviewed at a board meeting Aug. 6, including a report by historic preservation consultant Julie Larry of city-based ttl architects.

The island was sold to the Cushing family by the U.S. government. Larry said it had a variety of government maritime and military uses, including Fort Scammel on the island’s southern end.

The fort guarded the approach to Portland Harbor from before the War of 1812 through the Civil War. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, buildings on the north side of the island were used to process and sometimes quarantine arriving immigrants. Larry’s research showed almost 1,350 arriving passengers were inspected in 1904.

The government closed the facilities in 1937.

In 2012, Greater Portland Landmarks placed House Island on its first “Places in Peril” list, citing the lack of protection surrounding a private sale of the island.

Larry also said the northeast end of the island contains granite wharves from an early 19th century fish curing business. There are also remains of a lobster pound, estimated to be about 125 years old.

While no archaeological studies have been made on the island, Larry said other Casco Bay islands have “yielded artifacts 2,000-4,000 years old, evidence of Native American use for hunting, fishing and gathering.”

Larry’s report is considered by the board to sufficiently document how and why the island merits a historical designation based on its heritage and architecture.

Scarks said the buildings on the northern end may not hold “contiguous historical value” and may lack the historical value of Fort Scammel.

“I’d like to be sensitive to the history there. But there’s only three buildings there now,” he said of the northern end.

The nomination as a historical district immediately provides protection from demolition and anything beyond “minimum maintenance provisions.”

If the board recommends the designation, all provisions of the city historic preservation ordinance go into effect, including plan reviews for new construction or work on existing structures.

The recommendation also requires consideration by the Planning Board at a public hearing before going to a City Council vote.

Renovating historic structures while maintaining the original integrity of the buildings can bring significant federal and state tax breaks, but Scarks said that is not a route he prefers.

While the nomination process plays out, he said his focus on House Island is more immediate.

“Right now,” Scarks said, “I’m just trying to clean up the island from a lot of years of deferred maintenance.”


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