YARMOUTH — With ambitious zoning changes on the horizon, the town could be going back in time for future development, restoring the Route 1 corridor to its historic roots.
At least that is the vision developed by town residents, officials and planners through a five-day planning session called Planapalooza, held late last month.
The new master plan, which includes a dramatic shift in zoning code, is pedestrian-focused and envisions the removal of two Route 1 overpasses, slowing down the highway into what would be called “First Avenue.”
Town Planner Vanessa Farr said these changes are meant to respect the town’s identity and “civilize” the Route 1 corridor.
“This plan is meant to extract local character from Yarmouth and to write that into the code to make sure that what we build looks and feels appropriate to Yarmouth,” she said.
First Avenue would be a more bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly roadway. The plan would slow vehicle traffic and make storefronts more accessible by pushing parking lots to the back of the buildings, and create distinct bicycle lanes. This design is intended to allow pedestrians to have better access to the businesses and make the town easier to walk, Farr said.
The multi-day planning session, attended by more than 100 residents, was the public hearing for the zoning changes. The Town Council now has to approve the new administrative code and master plan for the Route 1 corridor, which should be written by the end of October, Farr said.
Sarah Witte, a Yarmouth resident and landscape architect, said she was impressed with how the consultants worked and believes the new code reflects a shift in planning design seen in communities across the country.
“Fifteen to 20 years ago, we started waking up to suburban sprawl,” Witte said. “Maine was beginning to wake up and say we don’t want to have our communities overwhelmed by sprawl development. We want to protect and preserve what’s important to Maine.”
She said this new code reflects that and has seen a shift in how people understand density.
“Density used to be a bad word,” Witte said. “But now we’ve come to realize those types of communities are the ones people want to live in.”
Another significant change to the town’s zoning code coming out of the session is a code more focused on form of development and less focused on use, with buildings that are designed to respect the town’s character in outside appearance, with less of a focus on the operation inside, Farr said.
“The difference in the proposed code is that it’s just not use driven. Use is important, but development standards have become the most important,” she said. “As long as they stay within the box, then it doesn’t matter as much what happens inside the box.”
With the new code, doctors offices, day cares, boutiques and cafes could all share the same area, as opposed to the current zoning code, which restricts certain types of use to specific areas.
In addition to the zoning changes, the review process will also be consolidated, Farr said.
“Instead of land owners having to go through Planning Board process for development, it’s all administrative,” she said. “Everything you will need to build will be found on one, 11-by-17 sheet of paper.”
Town Council Chairman Steve Woods said revamping Route 1 is an important idea for the future of Yarmouth, but it comes with significant hurdles.
“It may take 10 or 20 years, but I think the first step is giving it a thoughtful look,” he said. “There’s a huge challenge between the theory of what could happen and the reality, which I fear has to do with economics.”
Although the appearance of the town following the new zoning code could closely resemble Freeport’s Main Street, Woods said he thinks the town will be able to maintain Yarmouth’s character.
“No one wants Yarmouth to turn into Freeport,” he said.
The planning session was stewarded by the Gardiner-based consulting firm Town Planning & Urban Design Collaborative. The total cost was $50,000 and included all design work and writing of zoning code, plus the cost of a new permitting process. The funding for the project is from the town’s economic development fund.