Sparks fly over proposed West Harpswell zoning change

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HARPSWELL — Residents of West Harpswell clashed Tuesday with members of the Comprehensive Plan Implementation Committee over a proposal to create a village district in their neighborhood.

The town’s Comprehensive Plan, passed in 2005, calls for directing future growth into established villages while preserving rural areas.

The CPIC, tasked with identifying a village district area, considered five possibilities – East Harpswell, the town district on Mountain Road, and three sites on Harpswell Neck: South, Central and West Harpswell – before deciding only West Harpswell meets the criteria.

West Harpswell, defined roughly as the area including and surrounding Mitchell Field, has good soil, space for future development, potable water, amenities and easily buildable land, among other factors, the panel concluded.

If the area becomes a village district, two types of subdivisions would be allowed.

In the first, existing lots could be divided into 30,000-square-foot parcels with 80 feet of road frontage. Alternatively, 20,000-square-foot lots could be created, with half set aside for open space and half for housing, and 50 feet of road frontage. Both would require setbacks of 15 feet from roads.

Under current town ordinances, lots must be at least 40,000 square feet outside of subdivisions and 80,000 square feet within them, with 150 feet of road frontage, and 40-foot road setbacks.

By creating smaller, less-expensive lots and a walkable community, the committee hopes to attract more young people to town, committee member David Chipman said.

The proposed zoning ordinance amendments would funnel development toward West Harpswell, while keeping other parts of town rural, CPIC Chairman Chris Hall explained. 

“It’s going to get denser anyway,” committee member Burr Taylor said, “so we’re talking about how it gets denser.”

But nearly every West Harpswell resident who spoke at the workshop opposed the village district for just that reason.

Gordon Weil, of West Harpswell, said that people move to Harpswell to live on large lots in a rural area.

“Where the village district proposal leads us is to something … that looks very much like the suburbs,” he said.

Because the proposal would have to be approved at the annual Town Meeting, it would have the effect of “the entire town of Harpswell imposing its views on how one area of town should be zoned,” Weil argued.

Almost immediately after Weil started to speak, Hall interrupted him and the two argued until an audience member shouted at Hall to let Weil finish. The tension continued throughout the meeting, as committee members defended their proposal against criticism from several West Harpswell residents.

“I don’t think that it’s appropriate for any of us to be attacked, denigrated and be talked down to,” resident Jim Knight said, after committee member Burr Taylor suggested he was ignoring the facts.

Knight also noted that none of the CPIC members live in the proposed village district, and wondered if they would object to the proposal if it affected their neighborhoods.

David Luce, who lives across the road from Mitchell Field, said that because the village district only affects West Harpswell, residents there should be able to vote first on whether they want the zoning change, before the issue heads to Town Meeting.

But Selectman Jim Henderson argued that there is no precedent for a preliminary vote.

He also suggested that the real issue is not whether West Harpswell should become a village district or growth zone, but whether the Comp Plan should contain the recommendation that the town amend land use ordinances to increase density of development in villages.

Bill Ewing questioned if the town even has to control growth at all, given its 10 percent population decline between 2000 and 2010, according to the U.S. Census.

But Taylor said there comes a point when planning becomes necessary.

“I think the challenge is not to go whole hog with no planning, but pick the right time to plan, and don’t pick a time that’s too late,” he said.

Although Tuesday’s response to the proposal was overwhelmingly negative, Hall said after the meeting that he still believes some residents of West Harpswell support the proposal and didn’t think the workshop response reflected a consensus against the idea.

The CPIC will meet on Monday, Dec. 19 at 2 p.m. to discuss Tuesday’s workshop and how to incorporate the feedback into a revised proposal. The group plans to hold two more public hearings on the proposal in January before possibly sending the plan to Town Meeting in March.

Emily Guerin can be reached at 781-3661 ext.123 or Follow her on Twitter: @guerinemily.