Dec. 13 rezoning vote a watershed moment for downtown

By Gail Geraghty

Staff Writer

This rough outline map from the Department of Environmental Protection shows, in yellow, the current General Development I District from Depot Street to the Portland Road in Downtown Bridgton; and in red, the proposed new GD II overlay zone, with the blue ribbon of Stevens Brook running through both. Under amendments set for next Tuesday’s referendum vote, the minimum lot sizes for both districts would be reduced from the current 50,000-square-foot per unit requirement to either 5,000 square feet, in GD I, or 1,000 square feet, in the new GD II — allowing for mixed-use redevelopment of small lots downtown that are served by both water and sewer. The 250-foot setback from Stevens Brook that defines the border of the GD I District would stay in place. Stevens Brook is actually classified as a river east of its confluence with Willett Brook, as shown bottom left. Not shown on the map is another section of the GD I District that would also come under the reduced lot sizes; this is the stream-classified section of Stevens Brook, with a 75-foot setback, as it crosses under Main Street and runs through Shorey Park to Highland Lake. The undeveloped portions of the brook, such as in Shorey Park, are in the Resource Protection District and would not be impacted by Tuesday’s vote. (Department of Environmental Protection graphic)

Next Tuesday, Dec. 13, Bridgton voters will decide whether to take the next step in revitalizing its downtown by relaxing a 50,000-square-foot minimum lot size rule originally designed to protect Stevens Brook, and put in place a decade before a sewer system was built through the downtown.

The proposed amendments to the site plan review ordinance and the shoreland ordinance would reduce the minimum lot size in the General Development I District to 5,000 square feet, and create a new General Development II Overlay District with 1,000-square-foot minimum lot sizes in the southwest corner of Pondicherry Square, from the Chapter 11 building to the Rite Aid property on Portland Road.

The amendments would also allow developers to enter into shared parking agreements with other property owners or use municipal parking to satisfy parking requirements, and would eliminate in the downtown district the need for common space buffers or buffers relating one structure to another, typically required under shoreland zoning.

If passed, the amendments will clear the way for an application by AVESTA Housing Inc. to build a $4 million senior housing project on the former Chapter 11 property, owned by Zack Sclar — although no application has yet been formally submitted to the town for the project. The new rules would also allow creative redevelopment projects under discussion for the Macdonald and Potter properties at Pondicherry Square, and enhance the redevelopment possibilities along Depot Street, including the former Memorial School property.

“It’s a no-brainer,” stated Community Development Committee and Planning Board member Dee Miller on Tuesday. “It’s opening a door that is now closed, and in this economy we can’t afford a closed door.”

However, the proposed shoreland amendments will need to pass muster with the Department of Environmental Protection, and in their current form, they do not, said Mike Morse, the DEP’s assistant shoreland zoning coordinator.

Morse said DEP Commissioner Patricia Aho would accept a 5,000-square-foot lot size requirement in the GD II District, and a 20,000-square-foot lot size in the GD I District — not the 5,000- and 1,000-square-foot lot sizes, respectively, the town is proposing, unless the town can provide additional documentation to justify the smaller sizes.

If voters pass the amendments next Tuesday, those amendments must be submitted as written to the DEP, which can then approve them with the condition that the GD I District lot size be increased to 20,000 square feet, Morse said. Another townwide referendum would then be needed to approve the changes as required by the DEP, Town Manager Mitch Berkowitz confirmed Tuesday.

In a Nov. 22 letter to Bridgton Economic and Community Development Director Alan Manoian, Morse said the proposed amendments from 50,000 to 5,000 square feet for the GD I District “are not entirely consistent with the state’s minimum shoreland zoning requirements” and “does not appear to substantiate the proposed significant departure from these requirements.”

Morse said the DEP realizes the 50,000-square-foot minimum lot size requirement now in place “may very well be excessive for an area with downtown village characteristics,” but that a 20,000-square-foot lot size makes more sense, considering the variance in lot sizes in the GD I District. The Stevens Brook Elementary School property, part of which is within the GD I District, was taken out of the equation because it was such a large land area relative to the Main Street lots that it would bias the results, he said.

In considering lot-size reductions in other urban areas in Maine, the DEP’s practice has been to analyze both existing lot sizes and existing principal uses (commercial or residential) both within and outside of the shoreland zone, whether the parcels are developed or not.

“We feel that this lesser lot area requirement (20,000 square feet versus 5,000 square feet) strikes an appropriate balance between promoting downtown redevelopment and protecting Stevens Brook and downstream lakes, including Sebago Lake — the drinking water supply to nearly 200,000 Maine people,” Morse wrote.

Manoian said it is a “reasonable approach” to reduce the minimum lot size in the GD I District from 50,000 to 20,000-square-feet, but that “we are prepared to make the case for 5,000 square feet” and will provide the DEP with whatever documentation it needs.

Morse acknowledged that, in one of the first cases of relaxation of shoreland zoning laws in an urban center, the DEP allowed the city of Biddeford six or seven years ago to have a zero minimum lot size requirement in order to redevelop a huge old mill building on the Saco River in which the lot size was the same size as the building.

“The statute does allow some flexibility,” Morse said. The key to allowing lot size reductions, he said, is having a public sewer that is equal to, or better than, normal vegetative buffering requirements.

Asked whether the amendments may have been rushed a bit, in that they may need to be further revised and put before voters a second time, Manoian said Bridgton cannot afford to wait and let potential development opportunities slip away.

“Here we are in the third full year of a great recession, and we’re fighting every day for new job creation,” he said. Rick Marston, owner of the Peg-a-Leg Pete’s building in Pondicherry Square, closed his doors and filed for bankruptcy; and both the Chapter 11 and Bridgton Gas and Convenience buildings lay vacant and idle in the heart of downtown.

“We have (nearly) the entire side of the business district, dead,” with the shining exception of the thriving Ricky’s Diner, Manoian said. The amendments remove unnecessary regulatory barriers to redevelopment, and if Bridgton does that, “we have a fighting chance.”

Morse said the DEP isn’t used to seeing the “per-bedroom unit” requirement Bridgton is proposing, rather than the “per dwelling unit” designation typically used in other urban towns and cities where similar lot size reductions have been allowed, including Gorham, Biddeford, Lewiston, Portland, Augusta and South Portland.

Manoian said the “per bedroom unit” requirement was intended as a “more conservative, incremental approach,” designed to gradually increase the demand on sewer capacity in the downtown. He said improvements made to the system over the past three years, along with an ongoing inflow and infiltration study, will allow for growth.

The sewer system has a 21,000-gallon-per-day capacity, with around 11,000 gallons already allocated, and the town’s Sewer Committee is currently studying plans for siting future leach fields to accommodate potential future demands on the system from redevelopment projects.

If the amendments are approved Dec. 13, the DEP will have 45 days to issue a department order on them, once the town formally submits them.

Manoian said Stevens Brook was an open sewer up until 1983, when the sewer system was built. The GD I District — defined by its 250-foot-setback from Stevens Brook east of its confluence with Willett Brook, and a 75-foot-setback west of Willett Brook — was created to protect the brook after state shoreland zoning was enacted in 1971.

“We promoted waterfront living as the economic foundation of Bridgton for 40 years, but never balanced it against the needs of the downtown,” he said. “The 50,000 square foot (minimum lot size) requirement (in downtown) was absolutely ridiculous,” and contributed to depopulating the downtown, making it unable to sustain a year-round economy, he said.

“It has been proven out, now through the 1980s and 1990s, that the key to the economic engine of all downtowns is to have a mixed income, mixed age residential community living there,” said Manoian.

“What we’re trying to do is bring back the traditional 18-hour economy of downtown,” where Main Street doesn’t roll up after 5 p.m. but continues to support a residential community existing side-by-side with commercial business, said Manoian. If voters pass the amendments next Tuesday, he added, “It’s almost like we’re being rewarded” for all the efforts made to date to restore the vitality of the downtown, while at the same time protecting the scenic brook that winds through it.

Please follow and like us: