From the ground up
One of the notes I received after my previous column — my first in this new adventure — asked if I had “moved into town.” Clearly, at least one reader noticed that the title I had chosen for this column series — “Cedar and Pearl”— corresponded with a physical location in Belfast.
No, my wife, Susan, and I haven’t relocated from our home in Unity, where we’ve now been for 25 years; but Cedar and Pearl is a bit of a second home. We built a house on that Belfast corner in 1996, and it is where my 92-year-old mother lives and where my large family gathers for Christmas and other celebrations.
The big cream-colored house sits on what had become a vacant lot after arson destroyed an old apartment building. We bought the lot somewhat reluctantly: our plan had been to buy a house, not build one. But we couldn’t find an existing home suitable for my mother which was also within an easy walk of downtown. That was a key requirement for me. I knew we’d use this house, too — and likely live there someday. My dream: to be free to walk to the playground or library or co-op; and to feel that Susan and I could share a bottle of wine over dinner at Darby’s because we wouldn’t need to climb into a car afterward.
So we built.
I decided to design the house — not just the floor plan, but the whole thing, as an architect would. I had spent the better part of my life drawing houses that would never be built. Here was my chance to do it for real.
To approach the work, I had to recall skills learned in high school drafting class, as well as relevant tidbits from my college engineering curriculum. To this I added what I’d gleaned from years of home improvement projects. My knowledge was limited, but enough to get me going. I spent several months drawing and redrawing, learning along the way. When I felt myself getting close, I had local architect David Foley review my plans. David offered a few useful suggestions on layout and pointed out how one complicated part of the roof probably needed reinforcing; but overall, he found the plans sound. Whew!
One of my goals was to design a house that looked like it belonged in this neighborhood of classic hundred-year-old homes. Many people are surprised to hear that the house was only built in 1996. I sometimes joke that it looks old because it needs a new coat of paint. But the real reason the house blends into the neighborhood is its design, coupled with the fact that it sits on the right place on the lot. This issue of placement is critical, especially on a corner lot. If the house were set back further from the road than surrounding structures, it would look odd. Planners refer to this concept as “build to line” — and it has a bigger impact than you might think.
We were lucky that we could place the house where we did. In Belfast at the time, most new structures were required to be set back 15 feet from the edge of the road right of way, even if a neighboring structure was located closer to the road. But fortunately, the lot we bought was just shy of 10,000 square feet, which made us eligible for an exemption under Belfast’s ordinance.
Think about this. If our lot had been just a little larger — like most of the abutting lots — we would have had to set the house back from both roadways. Not only would that have looked worse, but it would have shifted the house into what is now our side yard. Ironically, a slightly larger lot would have given us less usable yard space.
I think about planning issues like this all the time. Though I’ve now dabbled as an amateur architect, I’ve put in far more time as an amateur land-use planner. I joined Unity’s comprehensive planning committee in 1990, and soon caught the bug. I was part of a group of Unity residents who came to appreciate how good planning could help a community grow in the right way, and could empower local people to feel that the future was theirs to forge. This led to the adoption of a new land-use ordinance and the creation of Unity Barn Raisers, both in 1995. Later, I got involved in the regional planning commission and then joined the board of the newly-created GrowSmart Maine — a board on which I still serve a decade later. Through it all, I’ve learned a lot.
One of the things I’ve learned is to appreciate that corner of Cedar and Pearl even more. Maine still boasts many older residential neighborhoods with attractive houses on relatively small lots spaced nicely along tree-lined streets with sidewalks that invite walking and conversation; but in many Maine communities, such neighborhoods could never be re-created under the current land-use ordinance.
Evan Richert — a professional planner of great vision, who directed the state planning office under Gov. Angus King — has consistently extolled the virtues of these “great American neighborhoods.” He has outlined changes needed in local ordinances to help promote new residential areas that mimic the land-use patterns of the past, proven patterns that help build community. I’ve been one of his foot soldiers, in a sense, having engaged Unity residents in a discussion that, years ago, led to changes in our ordinance that would now allow a developer to create such a neighborhood in our town.
The title “Cedar and Pearl” seems to fit what I want for this column.
The Belfast neighborhood speaks of the best of the past, and at the same time, suggests how thoughtful actions can create a better future. The house we built there teaches me that big tasks need not be beyond the grasp of an earnest and prepared amateur. It reminds me to set my sights high and to make sure I don’t sell anyone else short — good things to keep in mind when writing a column.
I also like the name "Cedar and Pearl" because of the imagery. I think of the cedar trees common here in Maine — beautiful in the wild, but also as the planks of canoes and lobster boats after having been artfully worked by man. The aromatic wood of the cedar tree lines Susan’s hope chest and — back in my boyhood home — a storage closet full of treasures and memories. Then there is the rare pearl, elegant but never ostentatious. I think of the string of pearls my father gave my mother on their wedding day. I think of Susan’s and my life together.
When our children were young, we spent a good chunk of most weekends at Grandma’s house in Belfast. In the winter, her home promised warmth that we could never match at our drafty old farmhouse in Unity, while spring there meant fewer black flies and summer was always cooler. Anna and Johnny played countless hours at the local playground and learned to ride bikes on Cedar Street, where the traffic moved slowly. And even though Susan and I never got out enough, we did get downtown for an occasional dinner or movie, leaving the kids in my mother’s care.
May that house at Cedar and Pearl stand for 200 years. May it continue to shelter and comfort. May it also continue to teach.
John Piotti of Unity is executive director of Maine Farmland Trust and this newspaper’s newest columnist. “Cedar and Pearl” will appear every other week.