Topsham workshop to explore 'character-based' codes

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TOPSHAM — With an update of the town’s 2005 Comprehensive Plan scheduled to pick up steam this year, an upcoming workshop will delve into character-based land use codes, an alternative approach to zoning areas of Topsham.

The presentation – to be hosted by Topsham Development at the Topsham Public Library at 6:30 p.m. Monday, Jan. 9 – will be led by Vanessa Farr of Maine Design Workshop and her colleague, Kara Wilbur of the Principle Group.

The duo will provide case studies from other communities in Maine and New England about how character-based coding can preserve historic towns and trigger the evolution of heavily-driven roads into areas that are walkable and economically strong.

Typical zoning dictates certain classifications, standards and uses for particular areas of a community, Town Manager Rich Roedner said in an interview Dec. 29. “Character based” is a newer term for form-based coding, “which says we’re not so much interested with the uses by and large; what we’re interested in is how buildings, and their uses ultimately, relate to each other, relate to public spaces, and how they look.”

Does it matter, Roedner posed as an example, whether a three-story on Maine Street in Brunswick houses residences, offices or retail?

“No,” he continued. “What matters is where it sits on the right of way, what the building looks like, how does it conform to our street standards, and the character of our downtown.”

It’s a type of land use code that has been growing over the past 20 years as a means of implementing an integrated land-use approach, Roedner explained.

“The theory being, people can live upstairs, they can work downstairs,” he said. “It brings in pedestrian capacity, it brings in parking – all these different aspects of planning to make a community more livable and more vibrant as opposed to so many of the sterile streetscapes that zoning has created over the years,” where buildings are all set back the same number of feet, and the spread-out nature of buildings forces people to drive, as opposed to walking.

Next week’s discussion will touch in part on what kind of impacts character-based coding would have in Topsham. Main Street could be one area for the system to be implemented, to make it more welcoming than “a suburban highway development,” Roedner said.

Topsham has already adopted some features that mimic character-based coding, such as building closer to the road, rather than farther back along setback lines, and erecting structures with multiple stories, in order to increase density and useful square footage without spreading out the building footprint, Roedner noted.

“Those are some of the things that we’ve included in our existing Main Street zone, that come from (character-based) coding,” the manager continued.

But that doesn’t mean that type of system will necessarily become the norm in Topsham.

“TDI is hosting this workshop as an informational project,” Roedner said, adding that the workshop will be held at the same time and place as the next meeting of the ad-hoc Comprehensive Plan Committee. “Nobody is proposing that we implement … character-based coding; that’s something that may come out of the comp plan, (or) may not.”

The committee will soon hire a planning consultant to guide members through a review and update of the existing plan, and also help engage the public in data analysis. The update could go to a Town Meeting vote in May 2019.

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.