Shoreland zone vote seen as referendum on Avesta
By Gail Geraghty
Next Tuesday’s referendum on amending downtown Shoreland Zoning rules in Bridgton is, officially, a question designed to give voters the opportunity to “do over” the vote they took in a special election on Dec. 13, 2011 (which passed, 200-100), that the Department of Environmental Protection later reworded in such a way as to change the language’s spirit and intent.
Unofficially, however, next Tuesday’s vote is widely seen as a referendum on Avesta Housing, Inc., since a negative outcome will prevent the affordable housing agency from submitting formal plans in December for its 24 one-bedroom apartments for elderly and disabled housing on the former Chapter 11 property at 247 Main Street.
“It’s highly unlikely” that Avesta can proceed with its plans if a “no” vote prevails, Town Manager Mitch Berkowitz said Monday. A “no” vote reverts back to the language contained in the DEP’s Corrected Conditional Approval of Feb. 21, 2012, requiring 5,000 square feet for each “residential dwelling unit” in the General Development II District where the 29,185-square-foot Chapter 11 property is located. Using that language, Avesta would be restricted to just four or five apartments on upper floors. The ground floor must be reserved for retail, professional or office space use, under a separate ordinance amendment approved by voters in June.
“They could potentially have four luxury apartments (on upper floors), like George Maguire did across the street at the Wales and Hamblen building, and make it economically viable — but they (Avesta) are in the low income housing business,” Berkowitz said.
A “yes” vote would give Avesta the density it needs by requiring 5,000 square feet for each principal use or up to five bedrooms, and 1,000 square feet for each additional bedroom above the first five. The language was crafted through negotiations with Town Attorney Richard Spencer and DEP’s Assistant Shoreland Zoning Coordinator Mike Morse over two months, after the town formally appealed the DEP Corrected Conditional Approval.
Bridgton Selectmen voted 5-0 Sept. 11 to take the new language to voters, as the DEP requires voter approval to make it official. “All I can say is, we worked (very hard) to make these changes and bring them to voters,” said Berkowitz, who pointed out that both selectmen and residents cried foul after the DEP changed the language, because they wanted the wording to reflect the “spirit and intent” of the changes approved by voters on Dec. 13, 2011.
The issue of changing the language was complicated by the June vote prohibiting residential use of the ground floor of lots 20,000 square feet or larger in the Downtown District, which was expanded to include all of lower Main Street and Depot Street, off Main Street, as well as a short stretch of the Portland Road. The June vote was intended to preserve the traditional character of downtown buildings as a mix of commercial storefronts and residential living space. But Berkowitz said the June vote had the “unintended consequence” of placing more restrictions and barriers to redevelopment than now exist.
“Wasn’t that contrary to the development you were looking for? It sounds like a chess game — and then it backfired,” he said.
On Monday, the Comprehensive Plan Committee voted unanimously to oppose next Tuesday’s Shoreland Zoning amendments as they are written. A week ago, through an e-mail exchange, members of the Bridgton Economic Development Corporation also voted against supporting the ordinance change.
Both the CPC and the BEDC, along with the Bridgton Board of Selectmen, Lakes Environmental Association and others, originally voted to support amending the Shoreland Zoning rules for downtown, since all agreed the former 50,000-square-foot minimum lot size for each principal use was not only outdated but a significant barrier to redevelopment efforts along the Stevens Brook side of Main Street.
The CPC’s minutes of their Monday meeting state that there is language in the amendments to be voted on next Tuesday that is “antithetical to growth in the downtown, which is what we are trying so hard to guide and promote.” CPC member Chuck Renneker, who suggested the committee take a vote on the matter, pointed out that, in both the GD I and GD II Districts created through the amendments, a property owner who has a big building on a lot under 10,000 square feet could only have one business move in, since the amendments require 5,000 square feet per use. Rather than encouraging use of upper floors of older buildings, he said, the amendments would prevent it.
“There’s a lot of people who say this ordinance was done too fast,” said Renneker. He said he believes that when the language was reworded for next Tuesday’s vote, it was done primarily with Avesta’s needs in mind, and not the needs of the entire Main Street commercial district.
BEDC President Lee Eastman said his board decided to take an official stand against the Shoreland Zoning amendments because of the several serious questions that have emerged — about sewer capacity, a commercial presence on the first floor and local preference in housing to Bridgton residents — since Avesta first began working with the town on plans for the Chapter 11 lot in October of 2011.
“A lot of folks felt as though they were working hard to support the local government — but I don’t think everybody had all of the information. When it emerged, it ruined everybody’s mind set,” he said. The BECD met with Avesta officials in May or June and “made it clear we weren’t going to back down on local preference,” Eastman added.
Berkowitz said if the amendments are rejected on Nov. 6, “The Earth won’t shift on its axis. We simply move forward.” But he added that, “In the process, haven’t we lost opportunity.”