Brunswick Planning Board takes up Longfellow School rezoning

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BRUNSWICK — The Planning Board is seeking legal advice on the proposed rezoning of the Longfellow School before proceeding with the process.

Bowdoin College and town officials say the rezoning is necessary to proceed with the proposed swap of the Longfellow School for the college-owned McLellan building at the corner of Union and Noble Streets. The school’s current zoning only allows single-family housing or duplexes.

The rezoning came before the board for the first time on Tuesday evening, but neighbors have already met informally with Bowdoin College and town officials twice in the past month.

As a result of neighbors’ concerns, the new College Use 7 zone, which was created especially for this case, was scaled back to only include the Longfellow School property. Previously it had included several nearby Bowdoin-owned properties along South and Longfellow Streets.

But that decision raised questions for at least one Planning Board member about the wisdom, and legality, of creating a new zone for a single property.

Jeff Peters worried that the move could be considered “spot zoning at its worst,” and would set a precedent by making it difficult in the future to rule against another special zone.

He requested advice from the town lawyer, Pat Scully, and his colleagues agreed.

Planning Board Chairman Charlie Frizzle said he didn’t think the selective rezoning would set a precedent because it was requested by the neighbors, not the college.

“This is not a private party or business or whatever asking us to spot zone in their favor. This is the community itself,” he said, a position that was supported by Town Manager Gary Brown.

But later in the meeting, Peters said he was uncomfortable with the appearance that the Planning Board was giving special treatment to the town.

“The town is essentially lobbying to change a zone in a very limited area to benefit itself so that when it transfers the property (to Bowdoin) it gets the most in return for that,” he said. “Let’s be honest about what’s actually happening here.”

Planning Board member Dana Totman wondered if the use limitations that the neighbors requested could be better accomplished with deed restrictions, instead of creating a new zone.

But Brown made it clear that although he favored deed restrictions, Bowdoin was not interested in that strategy.

On Wednedsay, Caty Longley, Bowdoin senior vice president for finance and administration, confirmed that the college is not interested in a deed restriction because that would be more permanent than zoning restrictions.

The meeting was well attended by neighbors of the Longfellow School, many of whom cautioned the Planning Board about the gravity of the proposed zoning changes.

Longfellow Avenue resident Meg Greene said that while CU 7 is preferable to the adjacent college zones, she still has concerns about some of the permitted uses in the proposed zone.

CU 7 allows dwellings of three or more units, which Greene estimated could mean up to 30 units being built on the Longfellow School property.  It also allows a recreation facility, although she said Bowdoin had promised not to build an alumni center there, something Longley confirmed on Wednesday.

Frizzle pointed out that the town’s Comprehensive Plan instructs it to increase density within the town center, which includes Longfellow Avenue.

“This is nothing more than an attempt to stay consistent with our Comprehensive Plan,” he said.

But Connie Lundquist, a Longfellow Avenue resident, said the plan is not intended to drastically alter the character of neighborhoods.

“Longfellow is sort of this little island, and we’re trying to maintain its character as much as we can,” she said.

Longfellow Avenue resident Michael Longley said he would prefer to extend the existing CU 1 zone to the property, and have the college, neighbors, and town agree to a specific use of the Longfellow School.

The Planning Board did not decide when it will take up the issue again.

Emily Guerin can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or Follow her on Twitter: @guerinemily.