Selectman challenges downtown amendment

By Gail Geraghty

Staff Writer

Bridgton Selectman Woody Woodward, saying he was acting on behalf of several residents who were afraid to step forward themselves, lest their names be “dragged through the mud,” raised the first serious questions Thursday about the wisdom of imposing new commercial-only rules for the ground floor of downtown properties on large lots.

Questions like: How is this going to affect older people with mobility issues, who can’t climb stairs to a second floor rent? Will this discourage development in the Village District? Does this truly reflect the intent of the existing Comprehensive Plan? Would a person have to move their living space upstairs if they make any changes to their property?

Woodward presented a four-page statement of concerns to the Bridgton Planning Board, prior to the planning board’s vote to send the Comprehensive Plan Committee’s proposed amendment along to the Board of Selectmen. Selectmen agreed Tuesday to place it on the June Town Meeting ballot, and to set a public hearing for Tuesday, April 10, at 6 p.m. to hear comments and concerns from residents.

At Thursday’s Planning Board meeting, member Dee Miller, who earlier said she’d “never seen such bitterness and incongeniality…and threats” associated with a proposed Site Plan Review Ordinance amendment, abstained from the vote, saying she agreed with its intent but not with all of its content, and “I’m especially distressed with the way it was handled. This atmosphere is poisonous and it makes me very sad.”

Planning Board Chairman Steve Collins acknowledged the board is in a unique position in his experience, having been asked by the CPC to consider their recommendation to prohibit residential uses on the ground floor of new mixed use development on lots of 20,000 square feet or greater. He said the board has maintained a position of neutrality in reviewing the consistency of and obtaining legal advice about the amendment over the past month, rather than debate its merits.

“We agreed we would endorse the language — that this reflects what this group of concerned citizens came to us with. So we can say, here is a document that we are not taking a board stand on,” and now it’s up to selectmen whether to put it on a warrant, Collins said.

But Woodward said that it’s the planning board’s job to take a stand, in terms of assessing “the problems and benefits” of proposed ordinance amendments, before sending them to selectmen. “It’s your job to do it. That’s all I’m here for, because I’ve been asked to do it.”

CPC member Glen “Bear” Zaidman asked Woodward who asked him to bring the concerns forward, to which Woodward replied, “They’re afraid of appearing. They don’t want their name dragged through the mud and appear in the paper.”

But Woodward said that if questions aren’t adequately addressed beforehand, “It’s all the collateral damage that’s going to happen as a result of this. If you pass this on, the board of selectmen is going to have to answer these questions, and before you know it, there’s going to be such an uproar in town.”

Woodward said that his primary concern is that the amendment is contrary to the current Comprehensive Plan.

“In fact, numerous policies and strategies of the CCP suggest just the opposite,” he wrote, referring to language encouraging “more small lot, residential development, auxiliary apartments, and high density housing such as duplexes and condominiums,” along with a goal stressing the need to “remove all local barriers to converting unused/underused housing spaces for small (750- to 1,000-square-foot) apartments.”

The language of the amendment as endorsed by the planning board is as follows: “On any parcel that is 20,000 square feet or greater within the Village Center District (See Village Center District Map), the ground level shall be used for retail, office, business or professional use. When the development is mixed use, the ground level shall be used for retail, office, business or professional use only. Home occupations and usual appurtenant uses associated with the building are exempt from this provision.” The amendment, further, would be made retroactive to Feb. 20, 2012.

Collins said the planning board “took great pains to make clear (that the amendment) was based on the current 2004 Comprehensive Plan,” and was not part of ongoing updates to the plan that have not yet been approved by voters.

Woodward made it clear he perceives the amendment as an attempt to kill a planned affordable housing project by Avesta Housing, Inc. on the former Chapter 11 property on Main Street. “I know everyone thinks this is about Avesta. I don’t care if Avesta comes in or not. I really don’t care. It’s a very polarizing thing.” The people he’s talked to don’t care about Avesta either, but are worried about such matters as how the amendment might affect their future plans to convert a family home into multi-family housing, if, as required, the entire ground floor would be restricted to commercial use.

But Planning Board member Fred Packard said such concerns are groundless, since they are currently addressed in the site plan review ordinance. “Our job up here, as we saw it, was to make sure everything brought to us was correct. It’s the public that votes on it, not us, and not you, as selectmen. If you’re on the wrong side of an issue, you’re going to pay the price. Simple as that.”

Packard also said that commercial spaces are usually filled if they are fixed up in-town, and the amendment preserves the traditional development pattern of the downtown. “Most of the issues you brought up have been brought up for 20 years. Lots of people don’t like change,” he said.

Woodward said the Comprehensive Plan “shows the intent to have residential and commercial co-exist, and not necessarily only within a single structure, which the ‘mixed-use’ wording of the proposed amendment would require of any property over 20,000 square feet.” He added that the amendment impacts far more properties and landowners than presented.

Despite original CPC predictions that the change would affect only around 3 to 5 parcels, “it has been shown that almost 40 lots fall under the amendment if new construction is done, a change of use is made, or a change is made to increase the property size by more than 25%.” The boundaries of the proposed new Village Center District would run from Main Hill along the downtown through lower Main Street to the Kansas Road and part of Portland Road, and would encompass all of Depot Street.

“If someone decides to make their ‘stately old home’ into a two-room bed and breakfast, they would need to add retail space to their first floor” under the amendment,” Woodward wrote. The amendment restricts developers’ options to redevelop a building in a manner they see fit “in a limited retail market,” perhaps adding a residential unit to the rear of the ground floor, to make it more economically feasible, he pointed out. And, at a time when the CPC has stated it is trying to avoid traditional, so-called “Euclidean Zoning” in favor of form-based codes, the amendment instead upholds such zoning by restricting the use of a property within a specific district.

“There is no reason given by the submitters of this amendment why the Site Plan Review Ordinance should be so modified before the new (comprehensive) plan is finalized,” Woodward wrote, so “it therefore seems as if this attempt to change the Site Plan Review Ordinance is neither necessary nor in the current interests of Bridgton.”

Please follow and like us: