Planners wrangle over definition of ‘structure’

By Gail Geraghty

Staff Writer

HARRISON — Chris Searles, manager of the Olde Mill Tavern, is “just looking for a little open space,” that’s all. Just a place for a few picnic tables, bordered by a split rail fence, with some plants and a ground cover of crushed stone.

His father, Gary Searles, owns the building — and thinks it’s a great idea. Who wants to dine inside when they can dine outside, enjoying summertime in Maine?

Yes, it is a great idea, Planning Board Chairman Barry Smith agrees. But there’s only one problem, he told them, when they appeared before the board April 5. In creating that “little open space” leading off the dining room, Searles is creating a structure.

“It looks like you might need to go to the Board of Appeals,” said Smith, adding that, while he didn’t like it either, the town’s ordinance definition of a structure is clear — at least to him. “All I’m doing is reading the English language,” he said.

A “structure,” as defined in both the town’s Site Plan Review and Shoreland Zoning Ordinances, as well as state law, is “Anything built for the support, shelter or enclosure of persons, animals, goods, or property of any kind, together with anything constructed or erected with a fixed location on or in the ground, exclusive of fences. The term includes structures temporarily or permanently located, such as decks and satellite dishes.”

The garden seating area is a structure, Smith said, and what he’s proposing is an expansion of an existing non-conforming structure. The proposed garden space doesn’t meet requirements in the Shoreland Zoning Ordinance for a 50-foot setback from the street or a 40,000-square-foot minimum lot size in the Limited Commercial District. It also increases the amount of lot coverage from 48 to 53%

“This is an area that I totally disagree with the Shoreland Zoning Ordinance. I agree it would be great to have an outside seating area,” Smith said.

The board tabled Searles’ request in order to do a site walk, which was held on April 13. The board is expected to revisit the request at their next meeting on May 4.

Chris Searles said a hedge would be planted to define the perimeter of the garden space, and the hedge would replace the fence when fully grown. A window in the dining area facing the parking lot would be replaced by a door, allowing access to the garden space.

Smith faced some opposition from other board members on his interpretation of the definition of a structure. Member Robert Celeste said he wasn’t sure if a garden space qualified, and member Eddie Rolfe said the board’s job was to “interpret the ordinance, but with common sense.” Rolfe said his opinion was that a structure was a building, and that the definition the town adopted came from regional planners.

Rolfe then asked Code Enforcement Officer John Wentworth, “Hypothetically, if he went out with a rake and a shovel, and put in a couple of picnic tables” without first coming to the town for permission, would you care? “I think we’ve got better things to do,” Rolfe said.

Wentworth didn’t reply directly to Rolfe’s question, but did side with Smith that the garden space would be a structure. In general, a structure is anything man-made.

Smith said, “If this document isn’t right, then let’s change it. Let’s change it. If it wasn’t for this ordinance, I’d vote (in favor) for it right now.” He said every request needs to be evaluated on the basis of what the ordinance requires, and said, “I personally feel that is a good thing to do.” If others disagree, he continued, “then I’ll resign from the planning board, and you can do what you feel is the right thing to do.”

Smith said, “We are on a slippery slope. If we establish a precedent that we don’t care about lot coverage and side setbacks, then why have ordinances at all? You’ll just give us a story, and if we like your story,” it will be approved, said Smith.

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