Restoration of historic Camden boathouse may depend on voter-approved ordinance amendment
Camden’s Planning Board will talk further Thursday evening, Dec. 1, about a proposed ordinance amendment that would influence whether a $5 million rehabilitation of the American Boathouse, at the head of Camden Harbor, will proceed.
Potential buyers of the Boathouse are considering the project but hope the town first approves a zoning amendment that would allow for residential use of the first floor of the historic building at 15 Atlantic Avenue. Current zoning of the Harbor Business District, where the property sits, prohibits residential use on the first floor of buildings there, per town ordinance.
The Boathouse, which was built in 1904, is on the National Register of Historic Places, and by recent assessments, is falling apart for lack of maintenance and care.
Cynthia and John Reed, who are Camden property owners, have hired a team of engineers, architects and an attorney to gauge the possibility of not only purchasing and restoring the 6,817-square-foot shed, but to ask voters to approve the ordinance amendment so that they can create residential space for family and friends, and maintain space beneath the building for boat storage.
Camden Attorney Rendle Jones appeared before the Planning Board twice in November, and will again talk with its members Thursday evening, in the Washington Street Conference Room, about the amendment he crafted.
The current ordinance reads: “Residential use is permitted, within 180 feet of the front property line on Atlantic Avenue, except on a floor at street level, provided all Zoning Ordinance requirements are met. The street level space shall be fully enclosed and conditioned with a minimum ceiling height of 7 feet, 6 inches. Access to the use may be permitted from street level so long as the width or overall area of such access way does not exceed minimum state and federal requirements.”
Jones’ amendment adds to that existing ordinance language: “Residential use shall be permitted at street level in a structure existing on the date of the amendment of this paragraph if the structure is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, provided that the residential use shall not exceed seventy percent (70 percent) of the volume of the space encompassed by the structure.”
The American Boathouse sits adjacent to Camden Harbor Park, and diagonally across the street from the Camden Public Library and Amphitheatre, both of which are also on the Historic Register. The Register is the federal government's list of districts, sites, buildings, structures, and objects considered worthy of preservation. Authorized by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, the Register represent’s the country’s effort “to coordinate and support public and private efforts to identify, evaluate, and protect America's historic and archeological resources,” the National Park Service says, in its program description.
The Boathouse, according to its listing on the National Register, was built in 1904 to house the 130-foot steam yacht Maunaloa, owned by Chauncey Borland, a summer resident of Camden and one of the founders of the Camden Yacht Club, formed in 1906.
The Register listed the Boathouse in 1981 after Maine Historian Earl Shettleworth lent his signature to the designation. The documents supporting the shed’s including on the Register said the long shingled structure, which extends from Atlantic Ave. to the shoreline, is “one of the oldest if not the oldest recreational boathouses in Maine and possibly the country.”
It evokes, the document said: “images of Maine as a playground of the very rich at the turn of the century — an era of massive yachts and opulence and ostentation. This picturesque structure, more recently used for commercial purposes, is a landmark on the shore of Camden harbor and vividly recalls an era now departed.”
But even that commercial use evaporated approximately a decade ago when the yacht broker company Cannell Payne and Page shuttered its doors there. It is currently owned by the Cannell Boatbuilding Company and assessed by the town at $890,000.
The Boathouse and the .2-acre parcel is on the market now for $2.4 million. Immediately adjacent to the Boathouse — within a few feet — is another old boathouse, which is owned by Lyman Morse. The two old structures fill in a formerly industrial end of Camden Harbor, where large oceangoing vessels were once constructed.
According to the 1981 Register listing:” The one-story boathouse is of frame construction with a gable roof and shingle siding. It is oriented on a north-south axis, with the south end on the harbor fitted with a large doorway. The long sides of the building contain 10 bays, each being 6/6 sash. At the northern end of the structure is a one-story, hipped roof office of later date with doorways facing north and west. Fenestration here is 8/2. The office extends westerly from the west wall of the boathouse giving the full structure an attenuated L-shaped plan.”
Last March, the Reeds, of Duxbury, Mass., purchased 10 Dillingham Point, which at that time was home to an old summer cottage known as Arequipa. They demolished the cottage with intentions of constructing a new year-round home there.
They also secured property on Bay View Street, where they are constructing a guest house for family and friends.
In early November, Jones, who represents the Reeds, presented the renovation idea to the Planning Board, saying the Reeds were “interested in restoring the structure and keep it on Historic Register, but their interest in doing that is with the caveat of not only storing their boat there, but to have residence there.”
Jones was accompanied by landscape architect Steven Mohr, of the Portland-based company, Morh and Seredin Landscape Architects, Inc.
Both described the Boathouse as deteriorating, and Mohr estimated it had 10-12 more years of life before folding in on itself.
“The foundation is crumbling,” he said. “The entire shell is barely held together.”
But current zoning allows only for residential use on the ground floor in that district, and the entrance to the Boathouse sits virtually on the sidewalk abutting Atlantic Avenue.
Jones said the Reeds want to keep the Boathouse under National Historic Register designation, which requires that the building’s exterior not be altered.
He said that the building’s state of disrepair would likely discourage the chance of a business entity acquiring and renovating it.
“Given the dimensions, configurations, flood plain, and the fact that water comes into building, makes it difficult to have multiple uses there,” he said.
Jones suggested two possible zoning amendments: Changing the map of the Traditional Village District to include 15 Atlantic Ave. on so that the building would sit in a residential zone, or change the stipulations of the Harbor Business District and amend a sentence so as to allow residential use.
“John and Cindy looked at this building last September,” Mohr told the Planning Board, on Nov. 3. “They were intrigued because it is iconic with the harbor, and relationship with park is significant.”
He said the Reeds have preserved properties elsewhere, “so they put us at task to assess the structure, what’s wrong and right with it.”
A structural engineer, marine engineer, Prock Marine consultant and Cold Mountain Builder consultant, along with Mohr, reviewed the building, he said. Then, he spoke with the Maine Historic Preservation Commission about “what we could and could not do to keep it on the Register.”
Prospective plans call for maintaining the waterway beneath the shed, with the railway and boat storage area intact.
A new foundation would be poured, steel frame constructed, and the roof would be replaced. All the windows would restored.
Estimated project cost is $5 million, said Jones. That price tag includes the property purchase price but does not include the interior overhaul.
Last fall, Mohr said, “it was somewhat daunting to all of us. As of December, Cindy said, ‘let’s look at it, and think about it.’”
The project came back to life this past summer, Mohr said, “when Cindy said, ‘let’s move forward and put it under option.’”
Jones said it would be unlikely that a commercial venture would ever recover renovation costs.
“The Reeds understand they’ll never get all their money back out of it,” he said. “We have this opportunity to see this structure restored but comes with requirement for a modest zoning change. Otherwise, they will just fold up tent and go home.”
Jones asked the board: “Are we on a fool’s errand or is this something the board and public will consider?”
He stressed that the Reeds have clear intentions to use to the building for family and friends.
“They didn’t want to get into something that didn’t pass the straight face test [like] form an LLC and rent the building back to themselves,” he said. “They do not engage in shenanigans. We don’t want to engage in shenanigans.”
The Planning Board will convene at 5 p.m., Dec. 1, in the Washington Street Conference Room to again discuss the proposed amendment.
If the board endorses it, and the Select Board follows suit, it could possibly appear before Camden voters in June.
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