Facing backlash, Brunswick zoning panel adds more hearings

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BRUNSWICK — The committee writing the town’s new zoning ordinance will hold additional public hearings in response to criticism from residents who are unhappy with the way the process has been handled.

Dozens of residents turned out for two meetings in the past week to gather input from property owners who live downtown and along the New Meadows River, two areas that would have the most changes under the proposed ordinance.

Although some residents had issues with the specific content of the ordinance, many more expressed concern that residents were not given enough time to read and understand the jargon-heavy document.

Town Councilor Jane Millett, speaking at a forum for “town core” residents on Sept. 11, expressed the frustration of some of her constituents.

“I’ve spent six hours with this document and I’ve barely scratched the surface,” she told the committee.

A third hearing is planned for Sept. 18 to address changes being proposed near Bowdoin College. It will be followed with town-wide information sessions on Sept. 24 and Oct. 1.

On Wednesday, Town Planner Anna Breinich said the committee will schedule two more town-wide public meetings later in October in response to the public’s concerns.

A Planning Board subcommittee has spent the better part of a year working with town staff and contractors from land use planning firm Clarion Associates to develop the new zoning regulations.

The changes are directed by the Comprehensive Plan adopted by the town in 2008.

The new document includes several changes intended to simplify planning by consolidating zoning districts and streamlining development rules.

It also includes changes to dimensional standards, setbacks and building sizes for specific areas in town. New regulations are aimed at keeping new growth concentrated in the town core, adding coastal protections to the New Meadows River, and shielding residents from the full impact of new building at Bowdoin College.

The committee, made up of Planning Board members Charlie Frizzle, Margaret Wilson and Richard Visser, has emphasized that the document is still in a draft form, and will incorporate public input before being presented to the full board and then the Town Council.

Still, many people who attended the recent public information sessions said they had no idea a new ordinance was being considered, and were not pleased with some if its content.

Residents of northeast Brunswick, at the Sept. 11 hearing, took particular exception to new standards that would allow “intensification” of use for lots on inner Pleasant Street.

At least five residents spoke against the new standards, and expressed concern they could pave the way for the commercial strip on lower Pleasant Street to creep into their neighborhood.

Bob Judd, of the Brunswick West Neighborhood Association, said the new standards could ruin the village look that is a gateway into downtown, and warned it might lead to another “disaster” like the commercial strip on lower Maine Street.

Breinich, on Wednesday, said the new standards would only affect a small part of Pleasant Street and are not intended to allow new commercial developments.

Residents along the New Meadows River were, if anything, even more opposed to zoning changes during a Sept. 17 hearing at the Southern New Hampshire University campus on Bath Road.

The zoning ordinance proposes to designate the area a coastal protection zone, which would add limits to the type of development allowed and give the town additional authority to deal with damaged septic systems.

Coastal protection zones are in place in the areas surrounding the coastline in the rest of Brunswick, but were not implemented in the New Meadows area.

Dan Devereaux, the town’s marine resources officer, told residents that the Marine Resources Committee proposed changing the zone’s designation to maintain high water quality in the New Meadows, which supports a “multi-million dollar” shellfish industry, Devereaux said.

The new zone would have new rules that would limit impervious surfaces, and other standards that could cut back on pollutant runoff into the river, he said.

Coastal protection zones had helped clean up coastal waters in the rest of town and could preserve the New Meadows River, too, Devereaux said.

Many residents questioned the scientific basis on which Devereaux and the committee were making their recommendation.

Mark Holbrook echoed many concerns when he said the committee is making a “spurious” correlation between coastal protection zones and water quality.

Others, like Frank Hansen, said it is still unclear why the zoning ordinance is being changed at all, and he remains unconvinced by the scientific arguments.

“I’ve heard no reason why we need to change,” Hansen said.

Although committee members insisted that the coastal protection zone would not be too different from the zoning that already exists, there was a sense from property owners that the suggested new standards would be an unnecessary and unwelcome burden.

Addressing his constituents near the end of the meeting, Town Councilor David Watson said the ordinance update is necessary, but residents have to get involved and make it a document they can support.

“We all have to work together,” Watson said. “This is for you, but more importantly, it’s for your kids, your grandkids, and hopefully, your great-grandkids.”

Peter L. McGuire can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or pmcguire@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter @mcguiremidcoast.