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Concern about Cumberland's 'rural lifestyle' fuels debate over Comp Plan update

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Concern about Cumberland's 'rural lifestyle' fuels debate over Comp Plan update

CUMBERLAND — A proposed Comprehensive Plan update, which would reduce the current four-acre housing lot minimum in one zone to two acres, is drawing criticism from residents who say they are concerned about the impact on the town's "rural lifestyle."

Town Planner Carla Nixon maintains that the updated plan would retain the current rural and growth areas, and said she does not see how the update would have a noticeable impact on the town's character.

The plan could be voted on by the Town Council next month.

But first, the Planning Board will hold a public hearing on the updates Tuesday, Dec. 17, followed by a council hearing on Monday, Dec. 23. The council will hold a second public hearing, and possibly take a vote, on Jan. 13, 2014.

The Dec. 17 Planning Board meeting takes place at Town Hall at 6 p.m.

Residents Christopher Franklin and Sarah Russell last week expressed concerns about the Comprehensive Plan Update Committee's recommendations. One recommendation suggests that the four-acre housing lot minimum in the Rural Residential 1 zone be reduced to the two-acre minimum already specified in the Rural Residential 2 zone, and that the zones be merged.

Nixon said some residents in the western part of town, living in the RR1 zone, asked town officials to consider the reduction, since residents nearby have the two-acre minimum.

"It's an equity issue," she explained. "We don't want to have more growth, per se; it's just that when we looked at why are some parts of town two acres, and some four acres, we just didn't really see anything to hang our hats on for that. And the area that we're looking at ... is not a huge area. When you look at just the number of parcels that actually would be affected, it's very few."

According to town documents, RR2 contains more than 6,300 acres, with about 1,100 lots, while RR1 has 4,200 acres, with about 470 lots. Thirty-five open-space, tree-growth or town-owned parcels are in RR1.

"Through the considerable acquisition of  open space, the town has created many areas of 'no growth,'" Nixon said in a Dec. 5 email. "It is not legal to zone private property as 'no growth' or 'not developable' in an effort to control growth. We have a Growth Management Ordinance that has been and will continue to limit the number of building permits allowed each year."

While a groundwater study triggered the need to spread out residences, leading to the four-acre minimum, improved septic systems in more recent years have made that issue moot, Nixon said in August.

At the time of the increase to four acres in the late 1990s, she said, "Cumberland was very concerned that they couldn't handle fast growth. This was ... one of many ways that they could look at how (to) slow that. And it worked until we got to a point where we really need to continue to grow and develop, to (be) economically sustainable without taxes going through the roof."

That shows how planning evolves over time, Nixon said.

"What people are concerned about is that all of a sudden, we're losing great areas of four-acre zoning, and we're going to have twice the build-out," she added. "And I just don't think that's true."

Franklin pointed out that the zoning ordinance rationalizes the four-acre zoning as a means of preserving open space and Cumberland's character, "which the Comprehensive Plan ... says is what people like about Cumberland. ... That zone exists to retain (the) rural character of the town; eliminating it goes against that basic tenet of the Comprehensive Plan."

Nixon said any maintaining the four-acre minimum could "possibly, but not dramatically" result in fewer new homes being built.

"For those one or two families that really need to see more of a yield financially from their land, it doesn't seem fair that if you live (in the RR2 zone), you can get two lots, and if you lived (across the street in RR1), you can only have one," she said. "For what reason? What's the basis for that?"

Franklin noted that when people bought houses in the RR1 zone, they knew that if they had a 12-acre lot, they could divide their land into three pieces of four acres each. In the RR2 zone, a 12-acre lot could be divided into six pieces.

"If I were looking at two 12-acre lots and was thinking about subdividing, I'd buy the one that I could subdivide, not the one that I couldn't subdivide," he said.

Franklin also noted that Cumberland has already increased its new growth permit cap to 80 homes.

Town Manager Bill Shane said in September that the annual cap on new homes was previously 50, and "I'm at 43 right now. ... We are in a situation where we desperately need to increase the cap, because I see potentially another 15 more applications coming before the end of the year. … This will be one of the biggest years we've had in growth in … maybe 10 or 15 years."

Franklin said Dec. 5 that the last growth increase was approved "without much public participation."

"When things change, you want your Comprehensive Plan to guide you," he said, "and they've already abandoned a growth cap that a vast majority of the residents said in their survey that the town should have."

In a letter to The Forecaster, he said a "Comprehensive Plan is meant to target where, and how much growth you want, while preserving, through zoning and other means, the natural features and less-developed areas of town. From what I am reading the revisions seem to be about eliminating barriers to growth, and weakening rural protections."

He also noted that Route 100 had been rezoned to provide a base for growing commercial tax revenue, and not for "building houses that are special exemptions to that zoning. ... I'd be hard-pressed to find anything they've done on Route 100 for contract zoning that has any backing anywhere in the Comprehensive Plan."

He went on to say that "seventeen residents spent 46 months writing a Comprehensive Plan that urged preservation of our rural character and agricultural lands, a plan that spoke of sustainability and moderate growth. These findings were supported by public opinion surveys, and the final recommendations were written to inform future decisions, not to be cast aside."

Nixon replied that in August that the Route 100 Corridor Planning Committee had called for four new commercial zones along that corridor, but that only one allowed housing.

With no demand for commercial development at the south end of the corridor after more than four years, the Town Council approved contract zone agreements to facilitate two recent housing developments on Route 100, between Mill and Wilson roads in the Village Office Commercial 1 Zone, at the former Castlerock commercial subdivision, and across the street at Morrison's Hill.

The intent has been to boost the number of residents in the area, thereby creating a demand for non-residential development, Nixon said.

Russell expressed concern about the speed of the Comprehensive Plan update process.

"I think any amendment to the Comprehensive Plan really should have more active involvement from the town, and not be pushed through at such a rapid pace, especially during the holiday season," she said Dec. 4. "... I just would like to make sure that there's been a thoughtful process to amend the Comprehensive Plan."

She noted that such plans are meant to serve as a guide for growth and development, "and to allow for strategic growth and not ad-hoc decisions. ... These are recommendations from four people, (while) the Comprehensive Plan took recommendations from a survey of the entire town, and there's a big difference."

Russell also pointed out that any suggestions for development and growth should be partnered with suggestions for maintenance of Cumberland's rural character, "because that's why a lot of people moved to this town."

While she said she understands that development is part of Cumberland's growth, she said she wants the town "to really think about where we're not going to develop, and set aside areas of our town that we are not going to develop."

Nixon noted that the updated plan, if approved, would not cause any change to an existing cluster subdivision development option, which sets aside room for open space, and that the same "incentives" available now would continue.

Incentives come from cost savings from not constructing extensive roads and drainage, she said, and from allowing the same number of lots in a clustered plan as permitted in a traditional-style subdivision.

The 2009 plan mentions a conservation-style easement, which is basically an enhanced version of the cluster option, but the update committee found "it's not going to work for Cumberland," Nixon said.

After she reviewed conservation easements with the Town Council and Planning Board, Nixon said, "the process by which you pull out land that's unsuitable for development is essentially what we do with the cluster (option), but it's just not as technical and mathematical, and it's much more rigid. And the Planning Board ... likes to feel that it knows how to deal with land use issues, case by case."

Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @learics.