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Cape Elizabeth planners begin farm zoning overhaul

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Cape Elizabeth planners begin farm zoning overhaul

CAPE ELIZABETH — The Planning Board Tuesday began looking at agricultural zoning, the next scheduled zoning overhaul as required by the town's Comprehensive Plan.

The most recent Comprehensive Plan laid out a schedule of zoning changes, which most recently included changing the Business-A zone on Shore Road and Route 77 to better support neighborhood-entrenched small businesses. That overhaul proposal has proven controversial, and has taken a year of work by the Planning Board, Ordinance Committee and Town Council. The council is set to vote on the BA zoning changes next month after it postponed a decision last week.

A shoreland zoning overhaul is also underway.

Agricultural zoning changes are advocated by the Comp Plan in order to better support and encourage agriculture in town and to prevent the ordinance from hampering the ability of farms to be viable, Town Planner Maureen O'Meara said Tuesday. 

Farm-related zoning changes are also an important issue to tackle, she noted, because the Strout family, one of the more well-known farming families in town is, according to code enforcement, operating outside of the ordinance by running horse stables.

Although the Planning Board views horse stables as an agricultural use, the current ordinance's definition of agriculture does not. Enforcement of the issue, which was raised in 2006, has been postponed pending the zoning overhaul.

In order to address these farming issues, the Planning Board is using a report from the Cape Farm Alliance, which includes a package of items it hopes to address.

The board is treating the alliance as an expert in local agriculture, and will use the group as a resource as the zoning overhaul process continues. 

The biggest job for the Planning Board, O'Meara said, will be revising the definition of "agriculture" to give as much flexibility as possible to farmers and anyone interested in agriculture.

According to the current ordinance, agriculture is OK in all zones; farm animals are OK on all lots larger than 2.5 acres.

Current agriculture in town, whether or not is it currently defined as such in the ordinance, includes several vegetable farms, horse stables and tree farming. 

According to the Cape Farm Alliance, there are nine farms in the town. The group is also assessing other, smaller-scale agriculture, from kitchen gardens to beekeeping to fresh egg production.

Zoning changes are expected to give more flexibility to farmers and residents, and remove some uses from site plan review requirements. They might also exempt agricultural uses from non-conforming use rules, which force land to revert back to its underlying zone's uses if the non-conforming use is abandoned. Though agriculture is an OK use in all zones, this could affect farming in wetland areas.

The "farm package," as the Planning Board is calling it, is not expected to see as much debate as the recent BA zoning proposal. But some residents are expected to express concern about the more hands-off approach to farming uses. 

Public hearings will be held once the Planning Board has a zoning proposal they feel is ready for approval. Until then, public comment is not allowed during board workshops. Public presence is always OK, however, and residents are encouraged to send suggestions or concerns to the Planning Board. Contact information for board members is available on the town Web site.

The Planning Board meets regularly the first Tuesday of each month; workshops will be scheduled separately and are posted on the town's online calendar.

Sarah Trent can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 108 or strent@theforecaster.net.