Debate continues over Brunswick's proposed zoning changes

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BRUNSWICK — The Zoning Rewrite Committee welcomed suggestions Monday – but also defended charges that a new draft of the town’s zoning ordinance is shifting too much authority to town boards.

The Town Council sponsored Monday’s forum – the final in a series of five; the previous forums focused on specific neighborhoods – and will use the input to review the draft at an upcoming meeting.

But Councilor Jane Millet, who represents the downtown area, told the rewrite committee Monday that she hopes to plan at least one more meeting in advance of the council’s review.

In a phone call Tuesday, she said the draft relies too much on the judgment of quasi-judicial boards like the Planning Board and Village Review Board to restrict (or advance) development. Consequently, the draft inadequately defines what developers and property owners can and cannot do.

“I think there are some areas that are very subjective,” she said. 

“Zoning is hard; it’s very difficult,” she said, but a good ordinance strives to eliminate “as much uncertainty as possible,” and the proposed draft would benefit from more specific regulatory language.

Millett, a real estate agent who has attended numerous workshops on the ordinance, said her concerns are heightened because she represents downtown, which has smaller lot sizes, greater density and a greater mix of zoning.

She said people were “taken aback” by the construction of the modern-looking Coastal Enterprises building on Federal Street, built after the Planning Board re-zoned the northern portion of the road to better reflect the area as a downtown commercial district. 

Federal Street resident Joni Shepard told the committee Monday she is worried the new draft would increase the number of buildings like CEI, which look aesthetically incongruous against the row of older homes that line Federal Street.

But the rewrite committee defended the amendment, and what Millett characterized as subjective ambiguity.

In removing definitions on specific types of development, Planning Board Chairman Charles Frizzle said the committee’s intention was to focus on the impact, not type, of development to avoid arbitrary or unfair restrictions.

For example, the draft only has one definition for “office,” Frizzle said – but the current ordinance regulates specific kinds (medical, business, etc.). 

“We’re not so concerned about what goes on inside that office,” he said, but rather, about what the impact the development will have on the neighborhood.

His explanation was in keeping with the committee’s goal to streamline the ordinance, which Vice Chairwoman Margaret Wilson had previously joked was “impenetrably” dense.

The draft does not address short-term rentals like Airbnb – an omission that drew questions and skepticism from the public over the series of forums.

The committee has opted to delay writing regulations on short-term housing, submitting that the prevalence of companies like Airbnb arose too late in the process of writing the new draft.

Among other criticisms, Will Van Twisk, of Magean Street, said he was disappointed the draft didn’t discuss AirBnb, warning that issues stemming from rentals like it are “what’s to come.”

Millett agreed, saying Tuesday, “I don’t think we should wait until it becomes a problem – that’s the purpose of zoning.” 

In general, though, Wilson said the draft intends to implement the vision of the town’s 2008 Comprehensive Plan, which, among other policies, encourages greater development in the town’s growth zone, as well as preserving the town’s rural character. 

Wilson noted the difficulty of reaching that goal, and zoning in general – the proposed draft is the product of more than 100 meetings – because the priorities of specific neighborhoods will always compete and cause tension.

Millett recognized as well that the desire for increased development will also compete with the preservation of what Wilson called Brunswick’s “livable neighborhoods” – quiet streets lined with single-family homes.

One of the more comprehensive changes in the draft increases the number of units per lot in respective zones; the draft also eliminates contradicting language in the current ordinance that unintentionally restricts the number of units allowable on specific lots.

The draft also provides more explicit protections for places that border neighborhoods, such as the hospital and Bowdoin College, Wilson said, citing stricter regulations around setbacks, building height and lighting.

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

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
  • Chew H Bird

    The ordinance, as currently in process, fails to recognize the impact of technology on our town. By categorizing actives by business type or occupation, and either promising approval or not, the fundamental cornerstone of zoning, (integrity of a neighborhood or area) is being completely ignored.

    If someone, say on Mere Point (for example), wanted to sell cars they would be excluded from that profession by the proposed, (and current) ordinance. It is entirely possible that in today’s world, someone could sell cars on Mere Point without ever placing a single vehicle on Mere Point property. The ability to connect buyers, sellers, and specialty trades via online tools is, (and has been for years), entirely within the scope of professions outlawed by the current and proposed zoning ordinance.

    In my opinion, a zoning ordinance needs to be a “living document”, intended to provide order and security for residents as well as have the ability to be modified based upon citizen choice.

    It is very clear the current proposed zoning re-write fails to provide an adequate foundation that incorporates technology and our rapidly changing residential and commercial definitions. While we may believe that what happens in an office stays in an office, by failing to provide a written zoning document that incorporates our changing communities and that is stuck in the past, this proposed zoning effort is a waste of money and taxpayer resources.

    Brunswick deserves a team of people with the vision and knowledge to create a zoning process that can serve our town for many decades instead of re-creating the wheel using old terms, old definitions, and ignoring what technology is enabling people to do both commercially and within their residences.