Concerns about college dominate Brunswick zoning discussion

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BRUNSWICK — A proposed change in the town’s zoning overhaul faced continued resistance at a public hearing last week.

The Town Council scheduled the June 15 meeting to hear feedback on a draft ordinance of the town’s zoning code, which a rewrite committee has worked on for more than three years and at more than 100 meetings.

Most of the discussion at the poorly attended meeting centered on how the rewrite would affect Bowdoin College and some of its residential neighbors.

Only two residents from the neighborhood abutting the Bowdoin College athletic fields spoke regarding a proposed change that would consolidate two college-use zones into a larger district, granting the college more flexibility to develop the property.

The consolidation exemplifies what some councilors – particularly Jane Millett, who also works as a real estate agent – have criticized as the proposed document’s tendency to consolidate zones for consolidation’s sake.

On behalf of more than 30 of her neighbors, Julie Hendrickson of Meadowbrook Road told the council she feared that consolidation zoning districts CU1 and CU2 – into what the new draft called GC1 – would have an adverse effect on their neighborhood.

Grouping the zones would allow the college to develop three additional building categories: warehouses, theaters, and a telecommunications tower. It would also increase the allowed building height from 55 feet to 70 feet. 

Within the existing zones the college is already allowed to build offices, libraries, academic buildings, museums, studios, parking, and recreational facilities.

The newly created GC1 zone would retain existing neighborhood protections that are already the strictest in town – notably, a 125-foot setback.

Neighbors are particularly concerned about development of college residence halls. Dormitories are currently allowed north of Longfellow Avenue – which delineates CU1 and CU 2 – but require a special permit to the south, near the fields.

An apartment-style residence hall along Harpswell Road was built in the southern-CU2 zone in the 1970s. A change in the new draft ordinance would allow residence halls as a conditional use in CU2 –  they are only now allowed through a special permit process – which Councilor Sarah Brayman said would be “a significant change” that limits neighbors’ options for recourse.

Developments allowed by conditional uses are determined solely by the Planning Board; special permits, on the other hand, are subject to an additional review by the council.

The college did not request the proposed changes, but supports them because they “preserve the interests of the college going forward,” spokeswoman Catherine Ferdinand told councilors.

She emphasized, however, that Bowdoin has no plans to develop the fields.

“In fact, we need the athletic fields, we need more athletic fields,” she said, suggesting that the campus is more likely to spread south, based on its most recent master plan.

Given the lack of urgency, Councilor Steve Walker he doesn’t “see the purpose of putting the neighborhoods through the anxiety” of the consolidation “if you already have what you think you need.”

Ferdinance responded that the college “had to adapt to whatever issues emerge, and we need to retain the flexibility to use the property that we have.” She noted, for example, that the 200-year-old college is dealing with emergent issues around off-campus housing and residential housing concerns.

Carol Liscovitz, who has lived in the neighborhood for more than two decades, said the college’s assurances about its present needs didn’t quell her fears for the future stability of the area.

She repeated from a previous meeting that the change would set in motion the college’s ability to eventually develop what are now athletic fields.

“The college says they have no plans, but they want opportunity,” Liscovitz said. “It may seem minimal at this point, but going forward, those impacts then become harder and harder (for the neighbors) to be able to push back against.”

Like the college, she said the neighbors were looking for the same sense of security and protection; she stressed to the council that both interests and concerns would be weighed equally.

“I hope (the neighborhood) understanding is equally considered as the college’s desire to have an open plate to put anything they want,” she said. 

In the coming weeks, the zoning rewrite committee is set to revise the draft a final time, incorporating public comment received in the past six months and recommendations from the town attorney.

The draft will be delivered to the council July 10; councilors are expected to schedule an early August public hearing.

Callie Ferguson can be reached at 781-3661, ext. 100, or cferguson@theforecaster.net. Follow Callie on Twitter: @calliecferguson.

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Reporting on municipal, school, and community news in Brunswick and Harpswell. Bowdoin graduate, Wild Oats sandwich-eater. Callie can be reached at 207-781-3661 ext. 100, or cferguson@theforecaster.net.