Brunswick council sends Longfellow rezoning back to Planning Board, ends tax trade with newspaper

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BRUNSWICK — The Town Council on Monday sent discussion of a zoning change around the Longfellow School back to the Planning Board for reconsideration.

An offset for unpaid taxes that The Times Record newspaper receives from the town in lieu of payments for advertising is also going away, at least for the time being.

The Planning Board approved a motion July 26 to send proposed zoning amendments to the council that would create the College Use 7 zoning district, and facilitate Bowdoin College’s move into the Longfellow School. In turn, the town would receive the college’s McLellan building on the corner of Union and Noble streets.

Some Longfellow Avenue residents have opposed the proposed zone because it would permit a non-student housing density of 10 units per acre and a recreation facility, which they have said would disrupt the neighborhood’s character.

The approximately 40,000-square-foot building sits on 2.5 acres and is zoned Residential 1, like the majority of Longfellow Avenue. Three units per acre of density is allowed in the zone.

While there was overall support among Planning Board members for the Longfellow property to be rezoned, the panel failed to reach consensus on density and whether the recreation facility is an allowed use.

That left the council with a decision to make before the exchange is finalized.

“The college has been very specific; they do not want to see the density any lower than 10 units per acre,” Town Manager Gary Brown told the council. “The residents on Longfellow would like to see it less than that. The college also wants to keep the definition of recreation facility as an allowed use in … (the) College Use 7 zone. Residents expressed some concern as to what a recreation facility may or may not include.”

Councilor Ben Tucker expressed disappointment that the Planning Board did not send the council a specific recommendation.

“They have dodged the two most controversial and, I think, important issues that are of concern to neighbors and of concern to me, as the councilor representing part of Longfellow,” Tucker said. “… My problem is with the Planning Board not having wrestled with those important issues enough, and coming up with a recommendation based on their analysis from the point of view of planning, and the compatibility of the recommendations with the vision for that area.”

Chairwoman Joanne King noted that this type of matter is one in which she relies on the expertise of Planning Department staff to guide her.

“I think that if the people on the Planning Board weren’t able to make a decision, as many meetings as they had, I don’t think sending it back to them is going to be a useful exercise,” she said.

Although the decision before them that evening was to schedule a public hearing on the zoning change, a motion to do so failed, 5-4. Councilors David Watson, Suzan Wilson, Gerald Favreau and King voted in favor of holding the hearing.

A second motion, to send the matter back to the Planning Board, passed 7-2; it was opposed by King and Favreau.

If it takes over McLellan, the town would move its offices into the building in January 2014.

Times Record taxes

The council also discussed its policy for dealing with delinquent tax accounts, particularly that of The Times Record.

The newspaper owed the town nearly $153,000 in unpaid taxes and interest charges as of July 18. Brown informed the newspaper three days later that the town would no longer pay it for advertising; the tax office instead applied the money Brunswick would have spent for ads toward the Times Record’s unpaid taxes.

John Eldridge, Brunswick’s tax collector and director of finance, said recently that the town had shaved the Times Record’s tax liability by more than $2,200.

The newspaper’s tax delinquency was the subject of a July 28 story in The Forecaster.

King, who brought the matter to Monday’s meeting, said she “was completely unaware that (the offset) was an accepted practice” and “had some implications that were concerning” with regard to exchanging services in lieu of taxes.

Eldridge has said the Finance Department has used the offset as a tool in the past with other delinquent taxpayers.

Councilor John Perreault said he opposes continuation of the practice.

“I believe that each payment should be made, whether it’s to us or from us to someone else, so that there is no feeling … that we’re getting a special deal, or someone else is getting a special deal,” Perreault explained.

“It’s not a deal,” Tucker countered. “The Times Record is not being paid the (advertising) bill. If anything … this particular situation may be disadvantageous to The Times Record.”

Brown noted that as of that afternoon, the newspaper had made payments on its oldest outstanding personal property tax bill, and that its publisher indicated that it will continue to make weekly payments until all its taxes are caught up.

“So I think for a variety of reasons, perhaps not the least of which is the publicity that this has generated … they’re now more motivated than what they’ve been in the past,” Brown said.

Although the Town Council took no vote on the matter, Brown said Tuesday that he came away from the discussion with two sentiments. First, that if the town finds itself in a situation in which staff thinks an offset should be implemented, the matter will be brought before the council for authorization.

And second, that because The Times Record has made a partial payment and plans to continue those payments, “if they hold true to that, we’ll continue to send them any invoices that we are owed to them,” Brown said, noting that should the newspaper fail to meet its obligation, the council would decide whether to reinstate the offset.

Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @learics.

This story was updated on August 16.

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A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.