Woodlawn files appeal in attempt to move forward with expansion plans

ELLSWORTH — Woodlawn has filed paperwork with the Ellsworth Board of Appeals to reverse a decision of the Historic Preservation Commission on Jan. 25 that effectively blocked a planned $8-million project.

The organization has cited three reasons for the appeal, chief among them that Woodlawn is not required to obtain the commission’s approval because the site never formally received landmark status from the city.

Woodlawn had sought permission to demolish three structures on the property, including the large barn behind the Black mansion that houses carriages and sleighs.

In January, the commission found that the organization had not met the criteria for demolition — in this case, that it had not demonstrated sufficient “financial hardship” that would prevent it from restoring the barn. Commissioners Carolyn Ackerman and Carla Haskell voted to approve the project and Terri Cormier voted against.

In a letter to the Board of Appeals on Friday, Woodlawn wrote that it is appealing the decision for several reasons. The first is that the property “was never properly designated as a historic site” and because of this that it is “not subject to the ordinance or review by the commission, and the trustees have no need to obtain a certificate [of appropriateness].”

For the project to move forward, all three members of the four-member commission who were present at the January meeting would have had to vote in favor. Mark Honey, the fourth member of the commission who did not attend the meeting due to health reasons, did submit a written statement before the meeting in favor of the project “with certain reservations.”

Honey wrote that he hoped “every effort be made to salvage” those structural aspects that are able to be saved. Commission members cannot legally vote in absentia and the letter was not presented at the meeting.

Woodlawn maintains that the 2-1 vote on Jan. 25 was in fact an approval, as enough members of the commission were present to constitute a quorum.

“A majority vote of only those members present in the quorum is required,” states the letter, which was hand-delivered to City Hall on Feb. 9.

If the Board of Appeals does not reverse the decision based on the first two arguments, Woodlawn contends that the structures do indeed create a financial hardship for the organization; therefore they should be allowed to be demolished.

“Even if restored, these structures would not aid in the financial well-being of the institution, as they have no ability to generate revenue,” wrote Zachary Brandwein, a lawyer for Portland-based law firm Bernstein Shur, who drafted the letter on behalf of Woodlawn.

Brandwein added that the buildings would “endanger Woodlawn’s long-term sustainability” if the group were forced to maintain them.

Woodlawn also noted in its letter that it has yet to receive any written reasons or findings of facts from the commission, which is required to give written reasons and recommendations if it denies a certificate to an applicant. The commission is currently preparing a packet to be presented to the Board of Appeals in advance of its Feb. 26 meeting.

The information will include written minutes from the January meeting with reasons and recommendations, according to staff at City Hall who have been working with the volunteer group to gather the necessary documents for the hearing.

Although the 180-acre property was at one time under consideration to be a historic site, neither the city nor the commission was able to produce records of the application and approval process for Woodlawn to be included on the list of properties registered with the Historic Preservation Commission. There is no date on file for final approval, and the property is not in a historic district, so traditional historic preservation ordinances do not apply.

This is not the first time that the question of Woodlawn’s formal acceptance as a historic property has come up.

In May of 1995, Woodlawn went before the commission with a request to make repairs to the roof of the Black House. A commission member “searched the council records, but was unable to find any reference that the Black House was designated by the city as a historic landmark,” writing in the minutes that “The commission will continue in its search.”

“It is clear no such records exist,” Brandwein wrote in the Feb. 9 appeal letter.

In a packet of exhibit materials filed alongside the letter, Woodlawn puts the cost to restore the carriage barn at $2.75 million, which includes $100,000 in fundraising costs and 15 percent for “contingency.” The estimate is based on a report by Kenneth R. Shea.

The caretaker’s house, which also is slated to be demolished, would cost up to $95,000 to be continued to be made viable, according to Shea, and maintenance costs for the buildings would range from $10,000 to $15,000 each year.

Woodlawn said the $6 million it has raised so far is restricted and cannot legally be used for the restoration of the barn.

To provide a comprehensive estimate and develop a plan for renovation, the Ellsworth-based engineering firm Hedefine Engineering & Design quoted $25,300.

Woodlawn provided in its materials a letter from the Brown, Holmes and Milliken Agency, an insurance company based in Ellsworth, which wrote that the interior of the barn is “unsafe” and that “the overall integrity of the structure is a major concern.”

The exhibit states that “the roof has reached the end of its useful life” and goes on to say that “the building in its current condition should be taken down for safety reasons.”

These estimates differ from reports commissioned by Woodlawn in 2004 and 2007 to look at the structural integrity of the barn. The 2004 report by New York-based preservation consultant Steven Mallory put the cost of “immediate stabilization” of the barn at $90,000. The second report by Simpson, Gumpertz & Heger did not give an estimate for repairs, concluding that although the “carriage house and potting shed appear to be generally sound … there may be hidden damage.”

Joshua Torrance, executive director of Woodlawn, said in an interview after the January meeting of the commission that these reports were not an in-depth analysis but the result of “a cursory look at the building,” which he said has deteriorated significantly in the past decade.

The appeal letter also states that the buildings do not serve the mission of the organization going forward.

“The structures have no practical uses. They are functionally and physically obsolete.”

Woodlawn withdrew its application from consideration for the Planning Board on Feb. 9 after the board said it would decline to consider an application before it had been approved by the Historic Preservation Commission.

The Board of Appeals will hear the case on Feb. 26 at 6:30 p.m. at City Hall.

Kate Cough

Kate Cough

Kate covers the city of Ellsworth, including the Ellsworth School Department and the city police beat, as well as the towns of Amherst, Aurora, Eastbrook, Great Pond, Mariaville, Osborn, Otis and Waltham. She lives in Southwest Harbor and welcomes story tips and ideas. She can be reached at [email protected]

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