Brunswick board vacancies impede downtown planning process

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BRUNSWICK — A shortage of members has left the Village Review Board unable to review downtown development proposals, potentially warping the town’s planning process.

The Planning Board discussed potential short-term solutions at a Tuesday workshop, in hope of preventing developers and homeowners from having to appeal to the town’s Zoning Board of Appeals.

The review board is supposed to have seven members; at least four are required to be present for meetings. Membership dipped to three last year after Jane Crichton decided to not seek another term.

Planning and Development Director Anna Breinich said the town has yet to receive applications from potential new members.

“This has been going on for several months and we have gotten to the point where we can’t conduct business any longer,” she said.

Breinich and other planning officials said they hope to have a solution before several development proposals are expected to reach the review board, which could happen within the next month.

“We’re just trying to make sure we can handle things in accordance with the time frame,” Breinich said, referring to the Village Review Board’s requirement to meet within 30 days of receiving a proposal.

The town has already received a sketch plan from Wiscasset-based Coastal Enterprises for its plan to redevelop 28 and 30 Federal St., the current locations of Town Hall and the former Recreation Center.

CEI plans to move its Wiscasset headquarters to Brunswick if a purchase deal is closed with Brunswick Development Corp., which is receiving the Federal Street properties from the town under separate agreements.

Because the Federal Street properties are within the town’s Village Review Zone, CEI must submit its final applications for building demolitions and new building construction to the review board.

But unless the board adds to its membership or the town changes its zoning rules to allow the Planning Board to act on its behalf, any developers, including CEI, will have to appeal to the Zoning Board of Appeals.

Breinich said that situation is far from ideal, because the appeals board is not designed to address design and historical preservation issues.

According to the town’s zoning ordinance, the Village Review Zone exists “to protect and preserve the architectural context and historical integrity of downtown neighborhoods.”

The duties of the Village Review Board are “to ensure compatible construction and rehabilitation of existing structures in the Village Review Zone without stifling change or forcing modern recreations of historic styles.”

That means the review board must approve building demolitions, new building construction, or visible improvements to buildings within the Village Review Zone, before other panels review final plans.

On the other hand, the Zoning Board of Appeals’ duties are to consider special exemptions and variances to zoning rules, and to hear and decide on appeals that challenge decisions made by the Planning Board, review board or town staff.

After some debate Tuesday night, Planning Board members agreed to consider proposing a zoning ordinance amendment that would allow the Planning Board to act on the review board’s behalf, if the review board can’t reach a quorum.

Planning Board members said they’re uncomfortable with that prospect, but Chairman Charlie Frizzle said they really don’t have any other choice.

“I would encourage the Town Council and Planning Department to do something more direct with respect to the problem,” Frizzle said. “The problem is we can’t attract enough people to the Village Review Board.”

The Planning Board is tentatively scheduled to meet on Jan. 22 or 23 to recommend the zoning ordinance amendment. The Town Council would then have to schedule a public hearing for the proposed change, and then consider approving the change at a subsequent meeting.

The council approved major revisions to the Village Review Board’s review process  in July 2013, which officials said will help streamline development in the downtown area. The changes included new tier and classification systems that aim to help developers and the Planning Department determine what kind of development requires full review by the review board.

For information on how to become a Village Review Board member, call the town’s Planning and Development Department at 725-6660.

Dylan Martin can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or Follow him on Twitter: @DylanLJMartin.