Casco: Permitting error leads to new notice policy

By Dawn De Busk

Staff Writer

CASCO — A permit issued for a home expansion in the Shoreland Zone did not quite follow state and local law, but the time period for abutters or the town to appeal the permit had passed.

Certainly, no one will be required to undo the construction that already took place in the late summer through autumn. To date, the homeowners have been cooperative with officials from the Town of Casco.

The building permit stands despite tree removal and other details that go against the Shoreland Zoning Ordinance.

“Basically, if you don’t appeal within the time period, the permit stands,” according to Casco Code Enforcement Officer (CEO) Alex Sirois. “There are court cases that have said that.”

Of importance, the incident has changed how the Town of Casco does notifications for building permits.

“This issue has changed how the town notifies abutters. This problem caused a positive change,” Sirois said.

Until the recent change, a log was kept of all the permits issued and people could come into the town hall and view that log.

“That is kind of the old-fashioned way the towns did stuff,” he said.

This method is still the way most towns approach the permit notification process, he said.

“What the town took away from this, knowing that we couldn’t change a lot here is: We talked about it and we decided to get more proactive with noticing,” Sirois said.

Now, all abutters within 50 feet are notified via postcard of any permits being issued, he said.

Additionally, the town posts permits on its website, https://cascomaine.org. Town staff aims to update the website at least once a month; however, the permits’ updates have been posted every couple of weeks, sometimes more frequently, Sirois said.

“Also, we’ve been sending postcards to abutters. Not a lot of towns do that. Poland does it. And that policy works well — that’s the reason I pushed for it,” he said.

“There’s an additional expense: the cost of the post cards, mailing expenses, and staff time,” he said, adding the notification protocol is worth the effort and cost.

“In Poland, we sent postcards to abutters within 500 feet. In Casco, we decided to do that for all abutters within 50 feet of the building permit structures,” Sirois said.

Just because there’s been a change with the permitting notification process, doesn’t mean people cannot go through the permits log kept at the Town Hall, he said.

“People can still come in and ask about permits that have been issued,” he said.

Before coming aboard as Casco’s CEO, Sirois served as assistant CEO for the Town of Poland, another town with plenty of Shoreland Zones within its borders. Poland, too, adopted an improved policy of notifying abutters stemming from circumstances similar to what happened in Casco.

History of the Shoreland Zone Permit to Expand a Building

The house is located at 3 Morning Lane, which is off Lakewood Road in South Casco; the beach frontage is on Big Sebago Lake.

Before outlining the history of this particular permit, Sirois stressed that the homeowners have been more than cooperative and that the former code enforcement officer, Don Murphy, was straight out busy in the final weeks before he resigned a year and a half ago.

“The back story is they got a building permit from Don Murphy to do an expansion, demolish an existing building,” and build upward, Sirois said.

“The date was May 24, 2016. I’ve said it so many times, I’ve memorized it. That was a week before Don left,” he said.

“What happened was he was so busy those last couple weeks. Because everyone knew he was leaving, there was a line out the door. The particular architect (who worked on the project on Morning Lane) said he was waiting here for six to eight hours for a couple days to catch Don,” he said. “Finally, they got together and Don issued the permit.”

“At that point, I started a few weeks later,” he said.

“They worked on the demolition and construction throughout the summer. They did the framing in the fall,” he said.

“I didn’t get a call until the structure was completely framed out,” Sirois said. “At that point, the neighbor called me. Because of the size of structure, he couldn’t tell earlier when it was a hole in the ground.”

“By the time, this particular abutter saw this thing, the appeal time had passed,” he said.

“There is an appeal process if someone doesn’t agree with the permit being issued. There is a time frame for that. It goes to the Zoning Board of Appeals,” he said.

Legally, there is an allotted time frame in which people can appeal the permit. The town has 30 days to appeal while the abutters are given 30 days to file an appeal with the Zoning Board of Appeals, according to the Casco Town Attorney Natalie Burns.

However, by law, once a substantial start has happened, you cannot change plans. A ‘substantial start’ is defined as 30%. “You cannot say, ‘You have to change the plans’ once there is a substantial start,” Sirois said.

In last August, Sirois inspected the property with two Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) employees who deal with Shoreland Zones, Mike Morse and Jeff Kalinich.

“We determined the property was permitted and had a substantial start,” Sirois said.

“We determined what would be required for vegetation [plantings] before the Certificate of Occupancy could be permitted,” he said, adding the homeowners, who do not live there year-round, agreed to the revegetation plan.

“The homeowners are being agreeable, cooperative. Their architect did all the permitting. They have agreed to plant trees and do a landscaping and revegetation plan, which they will submit this winter,” Sirois said.

“The issue was they cut quite a few trees to build the house. They didn’t clear-cut,” but the tree removal percentage was greater than allowable by Shoreland Zoning law, Sirois said.

Also, the newly-constructed home is closer than 100 feet to the high-water mark on the lake.

“The greatest practical extent” is for the homeowner to try to move the structure back 100 feet from the shore, he said. Sections of the home are between 50 and 75 feet from the water, he said.

The property owners “are willing to do what we wanted them to do. They added a bumpout that wasn’t on the plans. They cannot make it larger than it was approved. I said, ‘Take it off. It wasn’t approved on the plan.’ It was gone within the week,” Sirois said.

“The permit stands. We cannot change it. The abutter(s) could take legal action if they wanted to,” he said.

Going forward with Town-Issued Permits

“We still require people to post a permit card on site. That old requirement” is still valid, Casco’s CEO said.

The good news is that the town has not increased the building permit fee schedule. That cost is the same. For now, the town is covering the expense of the new notification process, Sirois said.

“The notification policy is on trial,” he said.

The notification process policy is multifaceted in that it achieves a couple things: It notifies abutters of permits that have been issued “and it has an educational quality as well,” Sirois said.

“You get a postcard saying your neighbor has a permit to cut trees in the Shoreland Zone or your neighbor got a permit for a shed on their property,” he said. “Someone new will know there is a permit required for those activities.”

“It reminds people they should call the CEO office to check if they need a permit,” he said.

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