Bangor Arts Exchange at the corner of Exchange Street and York Street in Bangor.

Bangor property owners who have buildings in historic districts will now be able to choose any color they want when repainting their building, after the City Council approved in a 7-1 vote on Wednesday evening a number of major changes to the city’s historic preservation code.

Paint color, signage, public art and some energy efficiency upgrades are among the things that now will not require historic preservation board approval, in the first wholesale update of the entire document since the late 1980s.

“The last time it was majorly updated was in an era before the internet, before energy efficiency standards. Downtown looked dramatically different then, compared to now,” said Tanya Emery, Bangor’s community and economic development director. “These changes will make the whole process more user friendly and bring us in line with other historic preservation boards across the country.”

City staff for the past two years have been revising the historic preservation guidelines to remove unnecessary restrictions, update language to accommodate modern technologies, reduce some of the contradictions between historic preservation and general code and disability access requirements, and to streamline and clarify the entire set of standards so it is easier to understand.

There are nine historic districts in Bangor, which include most of the downtown area and several neighborhoods, such as the Broadway Historic District on the East Side and the Whitney Park District on the West Side. The historic preservation commission, a volunteer board chaired by Reese Perkins, oversees the management of these districts and approves all major changes to buildings within those districts.

Historic preservation requirements have often caused frustration and extra expense over the years for property owners in historic districts. About three years ago, Amanda Sohns, who with her family co-owns 36 Central St. in downtown Bangor, wanted to have a satellite dish installed on the roof of their then newly purchased building, so they could provide cable TV and internet to future tenants in their three apartments upstairs from their business, The Rock & Art Shop.

She was told by the commission that they could not do so because satellite dishes were not historically accurate for the building, which was built in 1911 and is located within the city’s Great Fire of 1911 Historic District.

“Satellite was our only option to have internet at that time. They told us that a satellite dish was not historically accurate,” Sohns said. “How are you supposed to offer a luxury-style apartment if you can’t offer internet and cable? It just seemed kind of silly. It wasn’t like it was a permanent fixture. But it was a problem for us.”

Credit: Brian Swartz

One of the most notable changes to the historic preservation code is the fact that now, color will no longer be subject to board approval.

“The fact that you weren’t allowed to freely choose what color you’re allowed to paint your house or your building was a big bone of contention for a long time,” Emery said. “Paint is a temporary application, essentially. It doesn’t irreparably change the building.”

Other items that were once subject to approval by the board that will no longer be are things like satellite dishes and other communication devices, certain energy efficiency devices, and signage for businesses and organizations. Items like that will instead only require city staff approval, which can be given anytime, rather than just once a month, as was the case with board approval.

Getting a sign approved for a business in a historic district used to be a process that could take months and could sometimes require several revisions before a final design was approved. With the code updates, that will no longer be the case — though some changes to the sign approval process have already gone into effect, prior to the council’s vote Wednesday.

The Bangor Arts Exchange, a performing arts center and arts incubator on Exchange Street run by the Bangor Symphony Orchestra and Launchpad, is located on the second and third floors of the Nichols Block, which is in a historic district and also on the National Register of Historic Places.

Brian Hinrichs, executive director of the BSO, long wanted to have a BAE sign installed on the second floor, which was not allowed under the historic preservation code. Over the winter, the code was changed to allow cultural institutions and businesses with more than 10,000 square feet of space to have signs on upper floors.

“You can’t have every little office have a projecting sign, or there will be hundreds of them downtown,” Hinrichs said. “But you can adapt the code to allow for things that make sense. You can change things so that they are in line with the modern day but still respect the historical nature of the buildings.”

The changes also remove public art from being subject to board approval. Previously, public art, such as murals, that were located within a historic district would have had to go through extensive vetting by the historic preservation board. With the new revisions, such a mural would not be subject to any board approval whatsoever.

Emery pointed to an example from a few years ago, when the Peace & Justice Center of Eastern Maine approached the board, asking for permission to paint a mural on the side of a building on Columbia Street. The request was denied, based on the previous historic preservation standards.

“Public art is something that strengthens communities and builds pride in them. We want to encourage that sort of thing, rather than discourage it,” Emery said. “A mural doesn’t change the building. And its benefit is huge.”

Other changes include the removal of various historic preservation requirements that might contradict general city code requirements, increasing the amount of time city staff has to review a historic preservation application before it is approved, and improving the overall communication levels between city staff and applicants.

“We don’t want the historic preservation commission to just be something that says yes or no to people,” Emery said. “We want it to be a resource. If you want to more about your building, you can come to us. Our history is an asset, and we should treat it that way.”

Emily Burnham

Emily Burnham is a Maine native and proud Bangorian, covering business, the arts, restaurants and the culture and history of the Bangor region.