Cart before the horse? Rezoning debate heats up

By Gail Geraghty

Staff Writer

Emotions ran high at Tuesday’s Planning Board meeting over continuing concerns that the recent rezoning of downtown shoreland in Bridgton was rushed through to benefit one developer — Avesta Housing, Inc. — and that as a result, voters are now left with rules they never approved that could overburden the sewer system.

The discussion arose during a review of legal opinions on the Department of Environmental Protection’s conditional order, issued a month after a Dec. 13 referendum reducing minimum lot sizes in the General Development II District to 1,000 square feet per bedroom. The DEP conditional order amended the language from “per bedroom” to “per residential dwelling unit,” and set minimum lot sizes at 5,000 square feet, agreeing in its final order to drop it to 4,000 square feet after Town Manager Mitch Berkowitz appealed to the agency that Avesta’s plans couldn’t go forward at anything over 4,100 square feet.

Of particular concern was a Nov. 22 letter from the DEP, which is charged with ensuring that all local shoreland ordinances meet state shoreland zoning standards. That letter, from Shoreland Zoning Coordinator Michael Morse to Alan Manoian, who was then Bridgton’s Director of Economic and Community Development, made it clear that the DEP would not approve the amendments as scheduled to go before voters on Dec. 13.

After member Fred Packard read from the letter, Board Chairman Steve Collins said, “Let the record show this is the first time I’ve seen this document.” Collins later said, “I feel personally quite blindsided by not being aware” that the DEP had told the town beforehand it wouldn’t approve the amendments as written.

In an interview with The Bridgton News prior to the rezoning vote, Manoian made no mention of the DEP’s concerns until they were raised by a reporter who had received a copy of the letter from Morse.

“Why didn’t someone on this board say, wait a minute,” asked resident Glen “Bear” Zaidman, pointing out that the Planning Board has a long tradition of holding numerous workshops on amendments before bringing new language before voters. As it was, the board held just one meeting on the ordinance amendments before approving them after a brief public hearing in a 3 to 2 vote (Fred Packard and Ken Murphy opposed) — and never even saw the language before that meeting, held Oct. 25.

Packard agreed. “We didn’t have the opportunity to do what the planning board does well,” referring to the methodical process of writing ordinance amendment language.

Zaidman said Avesta should have come to the board first to talk about its plans. Resident Mark Lopez agreed, saying the process has been one of “putting the cart before the horse.”

Board member Ken Murphy said, “I feel very strongly that this was rushed to judgment” in order to entice Avesta to commit to plans to build a 21-unit affordable housing complex on the former Chapter 11 property in Pondicherry Square. Murphy said he recently talked to Avesta officials and was told that originally, “they weren’t even planning to build until the fall of 2012.”

Collins acknowledged that the rezoning was clearly driven by the Avesta project. “This was always about Avesta,” he said. Zaidman thanked him for that statement, pointing out that municipal officials were careful, before the vote, to say that the rezoning would not benefit any one project but the entire downtown.

Collins added that he supported the rezoning because “It was the chance to redeem a blighted property in a prominent part of Main Street.” Avesta is expected to submit its plans for the $4 million subsidized housing project by the end of February.

Packard, referring to the Nov. 22 letter, said he finds it disturbing that “I was not informed that I was going to vote on something that wasn’t going to be approved.” At the last selectmen’s meeting, Berkowitz said the Nov. 22 letter “was posturing,” and reflected the DEP’s lack of direction as to how to balance enforcement of shoreland zoning rules with the governor’s directive to the agency to act in a more “business-friendly” manner to stimulate economic development.

Both Collins and member Dee Miller pointed out, however, that it has not been uncommon for the DEP to make changes to town-approved ordinance amendments. Legally, the DEP can only rule on ordinance changes after they have been acted upon by the town’s legislative body.

Miller also pointed out that Collins wanted the board to have the opportunity to review the amendments prior to the vote with DEP officials, but that Manoian urged immediate action, or “the (Avesta) project might have been lost.” She said that the customary process of holding multiple workshops on ordinance changes wasn’t followed because the amendments were not initiated by the board, but by Manoian.

Lopez also pointed out that the board had no input in the DEP’s request to document “special local conditions” unique to Bridgton to justify its request for a lower minimum lot size than state rules allow.

Zaidman pointed out that when he brought forth proposed amendments to the Timber Harvesting Ordinance, the board went over language for nearly a year before bringing the revisions before voters. “Why now, when we’re looking at one of the biggest things to happen in this town in a decade,” was new language rushed through with nearly no planning board review, he asked. “It doesn’t make any sense to me.”

Lopez also pointed out the irony in that Avesta’s current proposal does not include any ground-floor commercial plans for the apartment complex, even though Manoian said the development would serve as a model of the promise of form-based codes.

Collins, responding to concerns that the “per-bedroom” language could overburden local sewer capacity, said any new development reviewed under the new shoreland rules would still have to pass muster with the Site Plan Review Ordinance, which requires adequate subsurface sewage disposal be in place.

“I hear your comments loud and clear — the fast track leaves us with egg on our face, but the horse is out of the barn,” said Collins. The only recourse for those who feel that the vote, though legal, was improper, he said, would be to ask selectmen to call for a new vote in June to amend the Dec. 13 vote.

But Miller said it would be better to “wait and see what is going to happen” when Avesta submits its plans.

“The electorate was uninformed,” countered Packard. “No one knew what they were voting on. I think it has to go back to the public. If we have three-bedroom units (instead of the 19 one-bedroom and 2 two-bedroom unit complex as stated by Avesta), we’ve opened Pandora’s Box on Main Street.”

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