BERLIN – The Berlin Historic District Commission (HDC) denied a property owner’s request to install a rolling porch on his property, citing concerns about the condition of the existing home.
After hearing from several residents strongly opposed to the proposal, the commission denied a request from Bay Four LLC’s Reggie Mariner to install a rolling porch at the well-known Pitts house on William Street. Neighbors of the rundown house decried the condition of what was once one of Berlin’s iconic homes.
“We as neighbors have had about all we can take,” said Marjorie Davis, a William Street resident. “This is of no benefit to the town or to the Main Street merchants. I have watched a once beautiful historic home for 48 years fall into disrepair under Mr. Mariner’s ownership.”
Mariner approached the commission seeking permission to install what was essentially a porch on wheels on his property at 201 William St. He said it would be used in conjunction with the Berlin Farmers Market, which is held on his property.
Commission member Mary Moore was the first to voice concerns with the proposal. She pointed out that installing a porch would just encourage people to gather around the house on the parcel, which is in disrepair. Fellow commission member Laura Stearns agreed and said Mariner was encouraging people to come to a building that wasn’t safe.
“It looked like it could have chipping lead paint,” she said.
Carol Rose, chair of the commission, asked Mariner if he had plans to improve the house at all.
“No ma’am not at the moment,” Mariner replied.
Moore said the house stood out in a neighborhood where people took pride in their homes.
“It gives me not a good feeling to know there hasn’t been any love or attention given to the Pitts house,” she said, adding that a lot of thought needed to go into making the property a public venue when it was in poor condition.
Commission members also expressed concern about the fact that the porch could be used to host musical acts, which could contribute to noise issues.
Mariner said the porch, which he planned to set up in the back of the house, near where the farmers market is held, was meant to add character to the property and give the house a better appearance.
“It’s not helping anybody that lives next door or who rides by on William Street,” Rose said. “It’s an eyesore.”
Mariner said the property had once been considered as a site for the town’s post office.
“I could’ve turned a good piece of change if I’d done that,” he said, adding that he simply didn’t have the money to do the extensive repairs the historic house required.
Davis, a longtime William Street resident, said the house had been sitting vacant for nearly half a century and that its condition only worsened. She said one of its chimneys fell off a couple weeks ago.
“He has owned the house for 48 years and that’s what I have looked at for 48 years,” she said.
Davis said Mariner had promised to install a privacy fence years ago but that it had never been done. She said that in the past the neighbors had to call town officials to ensure the grass on the property got cut and that broken windows got addressed. Davis recalled seeing homeless people and children in the derelict home.
Another neighbor, Judy Fisher, had similar concerns. She said she frequently had to chase children off the property.
“It’s not safe,” she said.
Tracy Albrecht, who’s lived on William Street since 2003, said she and her neighbors took pride in their homes.
“Many of the residents of William Street have worked tirelessly on the improvement and upkeep of their homes and this street to make it very appealing,” she said, pointing out that the street was on the route for the town’s carriage rides and its ghost tour.
She said town officials needed to acknowledge the importance of the residents who took care of Berlin’s historic homes.
“It’s the homeowners themselves that make this town adorable,” she said. “Our homes are a testament to this town.”
She said it had been disheartening to watch “one of the oldest and grandest” homes on William Street fall into a state of neglect. She pointed out that the property owner was making money with the two businesses at the rear of the property but hadn’t invested in the historic home itself.
Town Administrator Laura Allen said that Mariner had partnered with the town so that a portion of the property could be used as a site for Berlin’s events. Currently, the town hosts lunchtime concerts and its farmers market on the lawn at the back of the property.
“I do believe this is an opportunity to see some first steps in terms of improvement on this property,” she said. “I’m asking you to take that into consideration … it’s one small step. This town has made significant changes through a series of one small step.”
She said the partnership with Mariner had enabled the town to move some of its events off the street to a safer location.
Rose pointed out it was a residential location.
“If this approved on wheels with live music you’re going to have drinking which we have too much of as it is,” she said. “These people do not need to have this in their backyard. Have you been over there? Do you know how close that is? Do you want that in your back yard? Absolutely not.”
Moore said she felt that the commission was meant to represent the homeowners of the town, several of whom were objecting to Mariner’s proposal.
“I didn’t hear Reggie say ‘I’ve learned from this experience and I’m going to change,’” she said.
Ivy Wells, the town’s economic development director, spoke up on Mariner’s behalf.
“Sitting back here listening to what has transpired between the historic district commission and the Mariner family and the members of the audience, it makes me sick,” she said. “To me it’s been a personal attack on the Mariner family.”
She said she didn’t like to look at the house in its current condition either but that the Mariner family had agreed to partner with the town to provide space for special events.
“I’ve finally gotten them to have a public-private partnership with that property back there,” she said. “This is baby steps.”
She said it was a beautiful property.
“For my understanding, the reason that we’re here today is to see whether or not this porch fits into the historic nature of the town, it’s not to beat up the Mariner family,” she said.
She added that she’d been working with the family on a façade grant application that could eventually lead to improvements to the house.
Rose said that approving the rolling porch would be “opening up Pandora’s box” and wouldn’t benefit the neighbors. Commission member Robert Poli made a motion to deny the porch request that passed unanimously. Immediately after, the commission did agree to approve the installation of a fence on two sides of the property.