Yarmouth zoning evolution: Back to the future

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YARMOUTH — More than six months after a multi-day community planning session, ideas for planning Yarmouth’s development are moving toward becoming law.

The suggestions, which came out of the September 2012 community charrette known as Planapalooza, have been refined through Planning Review Board recommendations, with the final draft recently delivered to the Town Council. Public review of the plans begin April 18 and will likely spill over into May.

Essentially, the town is shifting away from typical use-based zoning to what’s known as character or form-based code, which places more significance on how buildings look, as opposed to what’s in them.

The concept allows the town to have more control over what development will look like and also simplifies the permitting process for developers, Town Planner Vanessa Farr said.

“The code is genuinely a reflection of what was developed by the community last September,” Farr said. “We’re not so concerned about what’s inside buildings, but how they relate to the street, what they look like, how do they become part of civic life and how they become part of a human environment.”

To make development more compatible with the human environment, Farr said, this kind of planning actually looks to the past, before the dominance of the automobile, where streets were public right of ways for multiple forms of transportation.

With the advent of the car, use-specific zoning became the standard, and in turn created convoluted ordinances that separated communities, making travel by car the most convenient form of transportation, Farr said.

“We compartmentalized to the point that created these homogeneous communities, where walking to get a loaf of bread became virtually impossible,” she said. “We imparted on our community … standardized zoning regulations. With formed-based code we’re coming back in some ways to what cities did over 100 years ago.”

With character-based code, downtown-like development can begin to appear anywhere. Instead of having separate sections for homes and another for businesses like bakeries, coffee shops and grocery stores, towns can begin to incorporate all of these uses into one neighborhood.

For Yarmouth, it could mean doing those things, and according to conceptual drawings that came out of Planapalooza, making other dramatic changes like removing the Route 1 bridge to connect the thoroughfare directly to downtown, turning it into a more pedestrian- and bike-friendly street.

This kind of development is what towns and cities in Maine and across the country are beginning to adopt, said Carl Eppich, of PACTS, the Portland Area Comprehensive Transportation System planning organization, which helps provide funding to local governments to institute transportation projects.

“You cannot separate transportation and land use. They are linked,” Eppich said. “What Yarmouth is doing is moving away from not only planning for how you get there by car, but how you get there by all modes of transportation. It’s not something new. It just something we’ve forgotten to do .”

Eppich said current zoning laws are car-centric, pointing to examples of zoning regulations that require banks to have drive-throughs as part of their design. He said character-based code considers all transportation.

“It’s just more comprehensive then just planning for cars,” he said. “It’s not leaving out cars by any means.”

In the next five to 10 years, Eppich said this type of planning will be the standard, noting that towns like Standish and Daramiscotta have already taken steps to adopt similar ideas.

And other towns, such as Freeport, have begun to think about trying to create accessibility and accommodations for multiple modes of transportation through task forces and planning. 

“There’s more and more communities realizing permitting uses and segregation of uses is kind obsolete,” Eppich said. “There’s not tarring leather factories next to someone’s house. No burning of trash next to neighborhoods anymore. There’s just not as much need to segregate industry by uses. It make sense to put housing above retail and make mixed-used apartments and coffee shops. It’s not so much about regulating what’s happening, it’s more about what we want the community to look like first.”

Character-based code also simplifies the permitting process for developers, who would have a defined plan for what they’re allowed to build, Farr said, which will typically be described in an illustrative, one- to two-page document.  

The town submitted a proposal to PACTS earlier this year to help pay to integrate this plan into existing land use. Eppich said the plan is “ranked very high and is likely to get funded,” although it still needs final approval.

If the funding comes through, PACTS will cover 80 percent of the $75,000 plan. The money wouldn’t be available until July, but Yarmouth will know if it gets the funding by May or June, Eppich said. 

“Everybody says ‘we don’t want change,’ but that is one thing I 100 percent guarantee you cannot do. You cannot prevent things from changing,” he said. “You can control the change, say how the you want it to look, but you cannot stop things from changing. Yarmouth is on the route of really having control over how things change, and I believe for the better.”

Will Graff can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or wgraff@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @W_C_Graff.