Cumberland zoning change paves the way for Main Street businesses

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CUMBERLAND — The Town Council narrowly approved zoning amendments that establish a Town Center District on part of Main Street.

The new zone, recommended by the Town Center Advisory Committee, comprises Main Street between Tuttle Road and Moss Side Cemetery. Its permitted uses include homes, personal services, business and professional offices, retail stores of no more than 2,000 square feet, small markets and cafes of no more than 2,500 square feet (with no drive-throughs), health and fitness studios, residential care facilities, and day-care centers and nursery schools.

Zoning on that part of Main Street had been Medium Density Residential, which does not permit commercial or retail uses. Non-residential uses currently along that strip are either grandfathered or allowed through contract zoning.

Town Manager Bill Shane said the zoning recommendations have been in the works for about two years. Town Planner Carla Nixon noted last year, before the recommendations went to the Planning Board, that the Town Center Advisory Committee tried not to adversely impact the people who live in the area. But she pointed out that a recent comprehensive planning process showed that many residents desire a town center on Main Street.

Last December the Planning Board deadlocked 3-3 on whether to recommend the changes. The Town Council deliberated on the language in several workshops before reaching its 4-3 decision after a public hearing Monday.

Proponents of the change praised the opportunity it offers small businesses, and the amenities it may provide to residents. Opponents said the amendments would ruin the area’s residential flavor.

Michael LeVert of Range Road, a member of the town center committee, said he did not know many people in the packed meeting room.

“And I think one of the reasons for that is that I do my shopping in Falmouth, and you do yours in Yarmouth, and I get my coffee on the way to Augusta, and you might get yours on the way down to Portland,” he said. “We don’t often have the occasion to run into each other in Cumberland. Nor do we have a chance to ask each other how we’re doing, how the town is doing, in a (place) like a town center.”

He added that “it’s always that town center that strengthens communities, that bonds people to where they live.”

LeVert argued that the new district would hurt not Main Street, but rather make it more sustainable. He also said contract zoning – one method used to allow a use where it is normally not permitted – is reactive and divisive, and “the antithesis of sound, thoughtful comprehensive planning.”

Carolyn Curry said her Main Street home was “right up there at ground zero” in the new district.

“I feel like this change has happened quickly,” she said. “I don’t feel like there’s overwhelming support, certainly not among the residents … of Main Street.”

Curry added that “there shouldn’t be a rush to change a zoning that would affect so many people if it’s not something that you’re really, really excited about, and really sure about.”

Chris Neagle, a member of the Planning Board, noted that many opponents of the amendments live in the area that will be impacted. “That’s a normal reaction that I also respect and understand,” he said. “But I think the greater good is important. Overwhelmingly, (from) the survey that was done for the Comprehensive Plan, a lot of people want this in town.”

Councilor Jeff Porter noted that 32 percent of Cumberland citizens responded to the survey, of which 50-70 percent favored the notion of having a select group of businesses on Main Street.

Neagle has said that area of Cumberland had historically been commercial, and that the town may have over-reacted to a development boom in the 1980s by zoning the area exclusively residential.

“I think the town made a choice in the ’90s to keep Main Street residential,” he said. “I think the overwhelming majority of the community that I know of would like to change that decision, (to) put it back.”

Dan Nuzzi, who had served on the Comprehensive Plan Committee, said his Main Street property is not in the area impacted by the changes. But he said he opposed the amendments, and that he doesn’t think “a wholesale zoning change is a good idea here and is fair to the people who actually do live in that area. … People bought the lots, they went in with that one idea that it was going to be a residential lot, and now that’s getting pulled out from under them.”

Nuzzi said he feared a new zone would change the character of the area.

“I think that you have to be careful (that) what you wish for may not be exactly what you get,” he noted. “And if one starts to go commercial, then they all have absolutely the right to go commercial.”

While he is not a big fan of contract zoning, he said, that mechanism could be used to allow a coffee shop while maintaining zoning in the rest of the area.

Porter and Councilors Mike Perfetti, Bill Stiles and Shirley Storey-King voted in favor of the Town Center District, while Councilors George Turner, Steve Moriarty and Ron Copp were opposed.

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

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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.