Neighbors decry planned demolition of Chestnut Street home
Camden — On Aug. 21 residents of lower Chestnut Street received a courtesy letter from Robert Hammer and Susan Crowe. Hammer and Crowe sent the letter to inform their new neighbors of plans to demolish the 1892 house they recently purchased at 58 Chestnut St.
Enclosed with the letter was a rendering of a shingle-style cottage that Crowe and Hammer intend to build on the site. The letter states work on the site will "begin soon and progress through the remainder of fall and winter " with plans for "substantial completion sometime in late spring 2013."
Former owners of 58 Chestnut St. Denyse Robinson and Michael Lowe were "shocked" to hear of the plan for the home, which used to be a residence and operate as the town's livery stable, according to Robinson.
Documents filed with the town of Camden show an application for a demolition permit was received and approved by Code Enforcement Officer Steve Wilson on Aug. 27.
The permit allows for the "removal of all existing structures from the location," according to the original application. Hammer said they plan to remove all structures and the existing foundation, a decision he and Crowe reached after consulting with building company Maine Coast Construction and architect John Silverio. Hammer said they drew the collective conclusion that building new — rather than attempting to salvage the existing building — would be in their "best interest."
Hammer said they're in the process of donating some of the architectural elements of the home and invited Midcoast Habitat for Humanity to take what they could use, a course of action that echoed statements made in the Aug. 21 letter sent to neighbors.
"We're hoping to help reuse the property in a very green fashion," Hammer said.
The Camden Herald received more than a half-dozen letters about the project as of Sept. 10. Most expressed — in addition to dismay regarding the fate of 58 Chestnut St. — a resounding sentiment about the lack of historic preservation in one of Camden's most original districts.
Wilson explained that Camden's preservation ordinance is applicable only to town-owned properties. He said in 2011 the Historic Resources Commission as well as the Planning Board attempted to propose a preservation ordinance for the Great Fire District, but the amendment to the ordinance did not even make it past the select board.
"There was a public outcry," he said of opponents to the 2011 proposal to change the zoning ordinance.
According to Wilson, Camden has three districts that have been labeled as worthy of inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places — the Chestnut Street District, the High Street District and the Great Fire District. Although they are deemed historic they are not explicitly protected by the town zoning ordinance, he said.
Wilson said neighbors have 60 days to appeal the demolition permit (or any permit) if they have a vested interest as abutting property owners and feel the permit was erroneously issued.
"They have to prove that the permit is in violation of the ordinance," Wilson said.
Monday, Sept. 10, Wilson confirmed that Hammer and Crowe have not applied for a building permit, but since they are having their new home designed by a local architect he anticipates the submissions will be reasonable and within zoning allowances. Wilson said he has heard concerns from some neighbors about the planned demolition of the home.
"My decision has to be based on the ordinance," he said.
Geoff Pittman and Lisa Millimet live at 57 Chestnut St. — directly across the street from 58 Chestnut St. Pittman's great-great-grandfather Fred Frye built 58 Chestnut St. and operated the livery stable there, he said. Pittman said demolition of 58 Chestnut St. is a proverbial canary in the coal mine for historic Chestnut Street.
"If we can't save this one what are our chances of getting some kind of control process?" Pittman said. "It's too bad that this house has to come as a catalyst."
He said he believes three new homes on lower Chestnut Street — constructed after 2005 on the site of the former YMCA — serve as an end point for the historic Chestnut St. homes and a segue into more contemporary structures.
"Now everything starts at Frye Street," Pittman noted, referring to the appearance of historic architecture. He said he knows visitors routinely "cruise" Chestnut Street to enjoy a vantage point of historic Camden, and he contends that some Chestnut Street homeowners have spent a great deal of money renovating to upgrade while preserving the historic integrity of their homes. Still, Pittman acknowledged Hammer and Crowe's rights as private homeowners.
"Legally they are completely within their rights to do what they want to do," he said.
Courier Publications reporter Jenna Lookner can be reached at 236-8511 or by email at email@example.com.