DEP admits error, will honor voters’ decision

By Gail Geraghty

Staff Writer

Even though officials from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection have admitted they made an error in evaluating minimum lot sizes in the General Development II District, an appeal to the DEP is still something the town will move ahead with anyway, Town Manager Mitch Berkowitz said late Wednesday morning.

“We’re still going to file the appeal, at this point, because we feel strongly the appeal is necessary to preserve our ability to provide justification and, therefore, respond to what the Attorney General’s Office opinion is regarding minimum dimensional requirements for the General Development II District,” Berkowitz told The Bridgton News Feb. 22.

The DEP has admitted it made a mistake evaluating the town’s proposal for calculating minimum lot sizes in the GD II District comprising the southerly side of Pondicherry Square on either side of Stevens Brook. DEP Shoreland Zoning Coordinator Mike Morse said Tuesday he is writing up a corrected order this week, which still must be signed by the commissioner, which restores the “5,000 square feet or 1,000 square feet per bedroom, whichever is greater” language that was approved by voters on Dec. 13.

Meanwhile, Avesta Housing, Inc.’s Bridgton Project Manager, Matt Peters, said Tuesday the agency has put off its first appearance before the Planning Board until April 3, in part because “We are trying to reconfigure the building to allow for future construction of commercial space.” The affordable housing developer has contracted to redevelop the former Chapter 11 property in the GD II District into a 21-unit housing complex for the elderly and disabled. Peters said the complex itself will not have commercial space on the ground floor, but that Avesta is sensitive to the town’s desire to have the downtown property serve a mixed use.

The DEP’s Morse said that after learning that the Bridgton Board of Selectmen voted last week to appeal the DEP’s conditional order, “it caused us to take a really objective reading of that (per bedroom) language” the town had sought. Initially, he said the DEP felt that using a “per residential dwelling unit” standard would provide greater flexibility to the town and be less restrictive than using a “per bedroom” standard because a dwelling unit does not relate to a specific number of bedrooms contained therein.

But Morse said the state’s Attorney General’s office disagreed, after the DEP sent the final conditional order, issued Jan. 26, to them for an opinion. “In the end, (the DEP’s conditional order) didn’t match up with the earlier intent of the town,” as explained when town officials first met with DEP staff in Portland last October to discuss the amendments, Morse said.

Morse emphasized that “the DEP is not doing this corrected order for any other reason than we need to correct an error on our part.”

Selectmen agreed that the appeal would simply ask the DEP to honor the language of the Dec. 13 vote — which is what the corrected order will do.

It was Community Development Committee member Mark Lopez who asked selectmen to appeal the order, saying, “Let’s see if we can get what we want — what we voted on.” He said that would be a start. But he pointed out that even with the “per bedroom unit” language restored, the Avesta project, if approved, would require far more of the town’s sewer system capacity than the 500 gallons per day the town currently allocates for the Chapter 11 property.

“If we have the capacity, the (planning) board must approve it, but guess what happens? (That capacity gets used up and) You can’t have the business development you so desperately want to attract,” Lopez said. He said he initially was supportive of the Avesta proposal because he was told by former Economic and Community Development Director Alan Manoian that it was going to have mixed use. “Now that’s not going to happen,” he said.

Complicating the matter is a major difference of opinion over what the actual capacity of the system is. The engineer who designed the system, George Sawyer, wrote to Berkowitz Jan. 16 saying Wright-Pierce Engineers significantly overestimated the reported capacity of untreated disposalbeds at the town’s two leach fields. The engineers were expected to meet this week with members of the Sewer Committee to resolve the dispute and try to come up with reliable numbers.

Berkowitz said that under the “per bedroom” minimum lot size standard, “you’re actually improving the ability of our (sewer) systems to handle whatever happens” in the GD II district. Under the DEP’s ruling using the dwelling unit standard, the Macdonald family, which owns several lots in Pondicherry Square, would be able to develop seven units (either residential or commercial) on the combined 28,000 square feet, “but you didn’t cap the number of bedrooms,” which potentially could cause more of a burden on the sewer system, he said.

Bob Macdonald also pointed out that his family wasn’t asked for input when town officials crafted the Shoreland Zoning amendment, yet Avesta was consulted about their requirements on several occasions.

“That was a mistake,” Macdonald said.

The Community Development Committee did meet with the Macdonalds after the Dec. 13 vote, and showed them a plan with 15 one-bedroom units over some commercial storefronts, Lopez said. Had the DEP known of the Macdonalds’ needs — and that the effect of the state’s language would give them only seven units — the agency might have seen things differently, he indicated.

Community Development Committee member Chuck Renneker said he talked to an appraiser who said putting housing on the Chapter 11 site was the “lowest value use of that property” and would diminish the value of all Main Street commercial property. Planning Board member Dee Miller disagreed, saying mixed uses are healthy for a downtown. “People who live downtown shop downtown, go to restaurants downtown, walk the streets downtown, worship downtown. We’ve got to grab whatever chance we have to get people on our streets.”

Berkowitz said the new information on sewer capacity concerns and the need to base it on bedrooms should help the town’s cause in an appeal.

“The reality of pressure does come to bear on how Augusta does business these days,” he said.

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