Shoreland Zoning referendum: We wish there was a better way

We wish there was a better way to prevent Avesta Housing, Inc. from building low income housing on Bridgton’s Main Street than voting “no” next Tuesday on the Shoreland Zoning referendum. After all, the intent of the ordinance amendment is to encourage redevelopment along Main Street, particularly with regard to the blighted row of compact buildings that back up onto Stevens Brook at Pondicherry Square.

It’s not very often that the best solution is to go back to square one and start over. But we think this is one of those times. We think that only when the emotionally-charged debate over Avesta Housing’s plans for the former Chapter 11 lot are removed from the equation, can the town of Bridgton truly move forward on creating development standards that reflect what residents want to see happen to its beloved Main Street in coming years.

There’s simply too much confusion, too many questions and too much division to support a “yes” vote next Tuesday. And those questions and confusion weren’t resolved by the fact sheet of “Frequently Asked Questions” that Town Manager Mitch Berkowitz created, at the Bridgton Board of Selectmen’s request, to help voters understand what they’ll be voting on. If anything, the issue of process since the original amendments were approved on Dec. 13, 2011 has become even more confused, to where, as Bear Zaidman recently observed at a selectmen meeting, “Even you selectmen don’t know how to explain it.”

Worse still, suspicion is still strong among residents that the language of next Tuesday’s Shoreland Zoning amendments vote was especially crafted to benefit Avesta’s housing density requirements, and not the General Development II District as a whole. The Chapter 11 lot, owned by Food City owner Zach Schlar, is one of seven lots in the GD II District, which also includes the former Paris Farmers Union property around the corner, on Portland Rd. At 29,185 square feet, the Chapter 11 lot is not the largest lot in the GD II District; that honor goes to the Potter Place property, owned by Jamie Potter, that includes Ricky’s Diner.

We believe that the town of Bridgton really did work hard, however, to come up with amended language for the voters next Tuesday that reflects “the spirit and intent” of the language approved last Dec. 13, 2011. But it’s pretty much agreed by everyone now that the Dec. 13, 2011 amendments were done too hastily. Otherwise, the DEP might not have rejected the town’s “per bedroom” language in the first place, and Bridgton wouldn’t have had to pay big lawyer fees over the ensuing year to convince the DEP that a “per bedroom” standard was justified, instead of the “per residential dwelling unit” language the DEP preferred.

But all the hard work in the world can’t fix something that’s already broken. And it bears repeating that the Dec. 13, 2011 vote, although approved by a 2-to-1 margin, was only voted on by 300 residents, in a special election. Ever since then, a vocal group of residents — whose opposition to Avesta is based primarily on where it proposes to build its housing for the elderly and disabled — has, with the best interests of Bridgton in mind, questioned the town every step of the way, and created its own counter-moves, such as the June vote to require that the first floor of properties over 20,000 square feet in the downtown district be reserved for retail or professional office use.

Berkowitz was correct to observe to The Bridgton News that the political process over changing Shoreland Zoning for downtown Bridgton has become “much like a chess game.” He believes a “no” vote next Tuesday will be a move backward, and a lost opportunity for the town. He also thinks the active opposition campaign against the amendments now going on in town — with signs that overstate the case saying “Save Our Downtown” — are somewhat ironic, since the amendments will foster redevelopment by relaxing density requirements.

No one wants to go back to the, frankly, ridiculous 50,000-square-foot minimum lot size requirements that were in place for the downtown Shoreland Zone prior to Dec. 13, 2011. But it seems to us that, like in chess, to avoid a stalemate, Avesta’s plans and changes to the Shoreland Zoning Ordinance must be separated in order to remove the perception of a conflict between what’s good for one developer — and what’s good for the town as a whole. — GG

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