DEP ok’s shoreland rezoning, with conditions

By Gail Geraghty

Staff Writer

There’ll have to be a do-over of last month’s shoreland rezoning vote in Bridgton, a portion of which did not pass muster with the state Department of Environmental Protection.

The DEP gave conditional approval Jan. 19 to the town’s request to reduce minimum lot size requirements for the shoreland zone in the downtown commercial district. It rejected, however, the town’s proposal to apply minimum lot sizes in a “per bedroom” manner, and to set the minimum lot size limit in the General Development II zone at 5,000 square feet per residential unit, not the 1,000 square feet per bedroom unit as requested.

“We didn’t give the town everything they were hoping for, but we do allow a significant reduction” from the current 50,000 square feet minimum lot size shoreland zone standard that has existed for years, said Mike Morse, assistant shoreland zoning coordinator for the DEP.

Morse said the state has allowed relaxation of shoreland zoning laws in downtowns throughout Maine in order to allow redevelopment of historical buildings, particularly mill complexes on rivers. In Lewiston and Biddeford, for example, the DEP allowed the standard to be set at zero, he said. “The department is given that discretion, because it knows that if we can’t reduce it to zero, (the mill building) would get torn down.”

But in order to justify such a significant reduction, a town or city must prove “special local conditions” exist — and in Bridgton’s case, the mere existence of deteriorating vacant commercial buildings, not right on the water, don’t qualify, said Morse. The average lot size in Pondicherry Square, where the GD II district was created in the December vote, is around 7,200 square feet, he said; which is why the DEP felt it was being generous enough in allowing an even further reduction from the average, to 5,000 square feet.

Morse said the town has until the end of this week to file an appeal on the matter. Town Manager Mitch Berkowitz said he would seek direction from the Board of Selectmen on whether to make a final appeal to the state.

When the town first learned the DEP would not go along with the 1,000 square foot minimum, Berkowitz filed an initial appeal to the DEP on Jan. 10, arguing that “The dilapidation and lack of occupancy (in Pondicherry Square) represents the greatest burden on any meaningful redevelopment. Coincidently they are also the parcels with the greatest restrictions since they lie in the shoreland zone.”

He said the buildings on the southerly side of the square — Peg-a-Leg Pete’s, Chapter 11, among others — “account for over 127,654 square feet of unoccupied, neglected space, or approximately 82% of all the parcels in the GD II District…The principal use of these was predominantly commercial and those models did not sustain themselves nor serve as support for the micro-economics of that area of the downtown.”

Berkowitz pointed to the Wales and Hamblen building, across the street, as having successfully undergone redevelopment by its owners into a mixed-use condo development because it was “not encumbered by the restrictions currently in the shoreland zone.”

Morse said the argument did not convince DEP Commissioner Patricia Aho, who has final say on the matter, but that the department is bound by the statute.

“It’s not necessary that we hear back from them, but I expect to, though.”

Berkowitz said the conditional approval, since it differs from what voters approved, would need to be voted on again, probably in June, to ensure all legal requirements have been met.

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