Voters to decide first-floor commercial, park funding, clean energy

By Gail Geraghty

Staff Writer

Voters will decide whether they want to make sure a mixed use is required for downtown buildings on large lots when they go to the polls next Tuesday, June 12. Voting runs from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. at the Town Hall on North High Street.

They will also be asked to approve a Park Forest Trust Fund that would authorize the use of tree-harvest revenue from town property to be used for the maintenance of Pondicherry Park as well as the other town parks, and to give a thumbs-up to a PACE (Property Assessed Clean Energy) ordinance that will allow homeowners to apply for low-cost energy improvement loans.

Supporters say the Site Plan Review Ordinance amendment concerning mixed use is needed to protect against all-residential developments such as the 21-unit affordable housing complex Avesta Housing, Inc. is proposing near Pondicherry Square. The amendment would be retroactive to Feb. 20.

Detractors, however, including Selectman Woody Woodward, say the amendment applies to too much of Main Street and would have unintended consequences for existing residential property owners.

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.

The amendment was first proposed by the Comprehensive Plan Committee, which recommended that the Planning Board take on the task of defining its language. In preparing language for the amendment, Planning Board Chairman Steve 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.

However, Woodward has said that the Comprehensive Plan’s endorsement of mixed use doesn’t necessarily mean such use has to be within the same structure. He’s worried that non-commercial property owners would not be able to use their first floor for living space if they made changes to their property major enough to trigger a site plan review. And the potential impact would not be minor, he said: “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 to be created by the amendment encompass the properties around the monument at Main Hill, down along Main Street to include all of Depot Street and the former Memorial School site, and beyond the intersection at Pondicherry Square up Portland Road to Maple Street, and down lower Main Street to the Kansas Road.

Most of the people speaking at earlier public hearings have supported the amendment as a means toward preserving the traditional mixed-use nature of downtown, with commercial storefronts on the ground level. Planning Board member Fred Packard has pointed out that changes can be made after adoption, if it is found that the amendment puts too much of a restraint on homeowners or developers.

The trust fund ordinance would make available around $5,000 a year for maintenance of Pondicherry Park, on which selectmen recently finalized town ownership terms with the Lakes Environmental Association and Loon Echo Land Trust.

The PACE Ordinance is important, said Town Manager Mitch Berkowitz, because it makes energy improvements more affordable for homeowners and businesses. The ordinance was defeated last year, in large part because it was placed on the ballot at the same time voters knocked down a proposal to ban fast-food restaurants and big box stores.

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