Selectmen held a 9 a.m. meeting on December 11 to decide just how to move forward on unresolved zoning issues. Voters rejected a proposed ordinance in November, leaving a current ordinance not in compliance with the town’s comprehensive plan and some state requirements.
After asking for input from those in attendance, selectmen unanimously passed a motion “to take leadership, with no committee, to set up a town meeting in or about July or August 2013 to install a new zoning ordinance.” The phrase “in or about” allows the meeting to happen in September if necessary, Chairman Peter Vogell said.
“I’m personally gratified the selectmen will take this on,” said Bob Friedlander, former chairman of the now-defunct zoning subcommittee, which worked under the auspices of the Comprehensive Plan Implementation Committee, dissolved by selectmen on November 19. “I wish you a lot of luck.”
Friedlander advised selectmen to be unified on what they bring to the public. “A split board will have a very negative influence” on the outcome of any vote, he said.
Why voters rejected the proposed ordinance
“Does [the ordinance] need to be explained better or does it need more work?” asked Selectman David Unger.
Those in attendance—most of whom had served on subcommittees of the now-dissolved Comprehensive Plan Implementation Committee—said the ordinance failed because last-minute cuts of controversial land use changes left voters confused; town business should be carried out during town meetings, which transient residents (such as the population of MMA students) don’t normally attend, and the November vote didn’t afford nonresident taxpayers, or “summer people,” a voice in the public discussion process.
Former subcommittee member Doug Koos said that controversy on “firestorm issues” not mandated by the comprehensive plan led to its failure and that a summer 2013 vote was too soon.
The comprehensive plan was passed by voters in 2010. That plan recommended relaxing residential building regulations by giving permit approvals to the CEO instead of the planning board; creating the opportunity for affordable housing; and promoting economic development, including in the rural, off neck district.
But changes to the zoning land use table aimed at promoting a favorable economic development climate raised heated controversy at public hearings on the proposed ordinance.
A new subdivision ordinance designed to promote affordable housing did narrowly pass in November, by six votes. However, one planned key element, allowing the use of wetlands in lot size calculations, was based on regulations in the proposed zoning ordinance different from those in the current one.
“I think there will be a lot of questions on the subdivision ordinance,” said Selectman Gus Basile, who voted against placing the subdivision and the zoning ordinances on the November town warrant.
Failed ordinance as a “baseline” for new version
The majority of changes in the rejected ordinance streamlined the residential building permit process and brought the proposed ordinance legally in line with state regulations.
Town Manager Dale Abernethy advised using this version “as a starting point.” Specific line item questions could be voted “one at a time to modify the baseline ordinance.”
Selectmen thought to separate the three issues involved in zoning—housing, economic development and zoning regulations.
“That’s the way we’re looking at it,” said Vogell. “In three sections.”
In the meantime, the contract zoning provision in the current ordinance can be used for proposed affordable housing development or land use changes.
Potential business owners “are not interested in jumping through hoops of contract zoning,” said Sue Walsh, Castine’s economic development consultant. She cited two businesses, a wellness practitioner and a boutique conference center, that backed off from their initial interest when the land use changes were removed from the proposed ordinance before its November vote.
In addition, Walsh has been working with MMA on bringing a research and development center to Castine, but the ordinance in place leaves “no place to put it.”
“I’m afraid the longer this goes on, the more opportunity we lose,” Walsh said, adding that she is drafting a new land use table based on “what people say they want” and economic development opportunities.
“Show me the facts,” said downtown business owner Julie Van der Graaf. “I think people across the board want to know…what jobs will [land use changes] bring, what protections will be built in.”
Some attendees felt a summer or fall 2013 vote was too soon, and others not soon enough.
“The iron’s hot right now,” said MMA soccer coach Traver Evans, citing an increase in new hires and possible research and development by MMA. “We’re at the point where we could get some growth and move forward—and not drag our heels.”
Several public meetings will be held before the vote, scheduled at different times for full community participation.
“If someone wants to meet at 3 a.m., I’ll be there,” said Vogell.