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 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.