Topsham voters OK $8.1M budget, reject zoning changes, digital signs

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TOPSHAM — Voters approved an $8.09 million municipal budget at Wednesday’s 3 1/2-hour Town Meeting.

But they defeated ordinances that would have created a new commercial zone along part of Route 196 and allowed digital signs in some parts of town.

The meeting drew 227 registered voters, or about 3 percent of the town’s total of more than 6,700.

The fiscal 2012 municipal budget will decline slightly from this year’s $8.14 spending plan. With School Administrative District 75 and Sagadahoc County costs added in, the entire Topsham budget will be nearly $18.5 million, up from about $18.3 million this year.

Revenues have dropped from $3.9 million this year to an expected $3.6 million  in fiscal 2012. The amount raised from taxes will rise from $14.4 million to $14.9 million.

The property tax rate is estimated to increase from $14.75 per $1,000 of valuation to $15.91. A loss of about $45 million in town value contributes to 70 cents of the $1.16 increase.

Voters authorized the Board of Selectmen to go out to bid for two vehicles: a Fire Department ladder truck and a Public Works plow truck.

The ladder truck is expected to cost $800,000. The $200,000 down payment includes $50,000 from taxes and $150,000 from the fire truck reserve account. The remaining $600,000 will be paid over 10 years through a general obligation bond or lease/purchase agreement.

According to Fire Chief Brian Stockdale, his department’s 1987 vehicle is not appropriate to refurbish and has been a drain on maintenance expenses.

A down payment of $35,000 for the $135,000 plow truck will come from taxes, and the $100,000 balance will be paid over five years through a general obligation bond or lease/purchase agreement. The vehicle will replace a 1980s model.

New zone, digital signs

After the budget portion of Town Meeting, voters rejected establishment of a Limited Commercial zone along about two-thirds of a mile of Route 196, west of Interstate 295.

The southwestern side of the road is part of the Suburban Residential district. A narrow, one-lot-deep strip would have been rezoned under the proposal. The opposite side has Rural Commercial Use and Commercial Corridor zoning.

Current commercial uses have comprised about a third of the strip and have been grandfathered, although existing home-based businesses have also been allowed. Town officials said they have heard it is hard to sell homes in the zone, given the largely commercial nature of the area. It has also been difficult to convert a home to a strictly commercial use, unless that property is on a grandfathered lot.

Planning Director Rich Roedner has said the non-conforming uses of those commercial lots have been grandfathered; for instance, a retail establishment would be grandfathered for a retail establishment of that size, but not for a general commercial use.

Property owners in that area have said the value for their lots, as residential uses, has been minimal, Roedner said, noting that that area of Route 196 has high traffic and many surrounding commercial uses.

The rezoning was geared toward allowing a larger number of low-intensity commercial uses and would have required buffering between those businesses and nearby residences. It would not have permitted all the types of commercial uses that are generally allowed in a commercial zone.

Planning Board Chairman Don Spann said the Planning Board split 3-3 on the issue.

Bruce Stahl was among Ivanhoe Drive residents who live near the proposed zone and opposed the rezoning.

“We moved here because we wanted a quiet, nice, friendly neighborhood to bring up our two young children; and for the most part, we’re very happy that we did,” he said, expressing safety concerns due to added traffic in the area from increased commercial activity, should the zone be created.

Fellow Ivanhoe Drive resident Stan Cielinski said he can hear the dog barking next door from his back deck. “What am I going to hear if a business moves in there?,” he asked.

Matthew Young, who lives on Route 196 and said he is trying to open a small shop, noted that the strip of land in question “is already 80 to 90 percent businesses and has been, for long before Ivanhoe or any other neighborhood (was there).”

He said the Comprehensive Plan Implementation Committee had worked “painstakingly” on the matter and that the process had not been rushed.

Young acknowledged that traffic is bad on Route 196. “Trying living on it,” he added. “But please, don’t blame the traffic on what we’re trying to do here, by having small, home-based businesses. … These are all businesses that have already been in place.”

Voters also defeated an ordinance that would have regulated electronic message boards, or digital signs, in certain parts of town. Topsham currently has only four, which the town has governed based on state regulations. But since the state’s language has been relaxed, the town looked into establishing its own regulations.

Sandra Consolini of Loon Drive noted that “Topsham is not a metropolitan area; Topsham is not a city. Topsham is a town … . I think the outlook for Topsham is not signs that are blinking all over the place.”

She pointed out that such signs are distracting to drivers.

Selectman Don Russell noted that “the only winners in installing these signs in town basically are the manufacturers of the signs.”

Under the proposed language, the signs would have been allowed in the southwest and northwest quadrants of the interchange of Interstate 295 and Route 196 – the Mixed Use Commercial 1 district, and the Commercial Corridor 196 and Business Park districts, respectively. They would have been permitted on the east side of I-295 along Route 196 as far as Route 201 (the commercial corridor), in the area of the intersection of Route 196 and Route 201 (the Village Center district), and north on Route 201 (the Limited Industrial district).

The signs would not have been allowed off-premise, and posted messages would have had to run for at least one minute, except for time and temperature signs. No streaming images or video would have been allowed.

Roedner said after the meeting that electronic signs showing static messages, one per day, are currently allowed, and that the four existing electronic signs meet that criteria.

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

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A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.