BRUNSWICK — Three years and more than 100 meetings later, the Planning Board held a public meeting to review the final draft of a new town zoning ordinance that better reflects the present state of the town.
Though members of the public expressed no major concerns, the board tabled a vote to approve the 200-page document until its next meeting, since one member had not read the final version.
The existing zoning ordinance was last updated in 1997. Since then, major town developments like the closure of the Brunswick Naval Air Station, the adoption of the 2008 Comprehensive Plan, and changes in state law have left the document outdated.
The zoning re-write committee is composed of Chairman Charlie Frizzle, Vice Chairwoman Margaret Wilson, Richard Vissar and town staff.
In addition to reflecting major changes, the new draft is meant to make what Wilson jokingly called the “impenetrably” dense document more user friendly for residents, developers and staff.
The document’s format and zoning districts have been streamlined and consolidated in accord with most modern ordinances, according to the Board, and also creates a more navigable document and eliminates overlapping and contradictory language.
The new draft also includes visual aids like tables and illustrations the old version lacked.
Though the organization has changed, the board said that most of the regulations have stayed the same (except for updates in compliance with new state law).
One major change to the ordinance consolidates zoning districts. An executive summary of the draft states that Brunswick has 45 zoning districts – an unusually high number for its size – in what Director of Planning and Development Anna Breinich speculated was an attempt to make a zone out of every residential area and neighborhood.
The change simplifies the ordinance, but concerned at least one member of the public, who said consolidating two Bowdoin College districts would allow development of the core campus on athletic fields.
Carol Liscovitz has lived in the neighborhood behind the college athletic fields for more than two decades. In the existing zoning district, there are eight college use zones designated for Bowdoin’s core campus above the downtown area. The new draft reduces the districts to four, and combines the district that contains athletic fields (CU2) with the district containing major academic buildings (CU1) into one district (to be called GC1).
Liscovitz worried that the rewrite might allow the college to transform the fields – a mostly green space – into developable property.
“The heart of the campus should stay the heart of the campus,” she said, although she also emphasized that she loves having the college as a neighbor and believes it is an asset to the town. She said she simply wants to ensure that the town would honor the intent of the existing zoning, which is to keep her neighborhood quiet.
Bowdoin College’s Catherine Ferdinand, a project assistant in the treasurer’s office, tried to quell those concerns, and said the college has “no immediate plans to develop that property.”
The consolidation does give the college more generous rights to develop the property – for example, it can now build taller buildings on the site – but Ferdinand said that not much will change. The edges of the zone are still protected with large setbacks, and major buildings like dining halls are still not permitted.
Frizzle told Liscovitz that while the consolation does open zones up to conditional permits that were not previously available, the board can still exercise its judgment about whether a project can move forward with a special permit.
Wilson added that the ordinance includes “very specific measures” that the board must consider before approving a project with a special permit, such as an increase in noise or traffic. The measures are intended prevent consolidation from reducing the number of regulations.
Although the issue is a concern in other communities, the new draft does not address the rise of home rental services like Airbnb, which are disrupting housing markets across the country.
The board said the zoning committee has not considered the issue, but Richard Fisco, of Lincoln Street, said he’s aware of more than 300 Airbnb rentals in Brunswick.
Frizzle said the issue “was not high on anyone’s agenda at this point,” and would likely not be included in this year’s rewrite.
If the board approves the draft at its next meeting, the ordinance will go before the Town Council for further public hearings and an eventual vote.