Originally published in The Weekly Packet, November 21, 2012
Comp plan, site plan review ordinance updates on tap in Blue Hill
by Rich Hewitt
The Blue Hill Planning Board has set an ambitious agenda for itself proposing to update the town’s existing Site Plan Review Ordinance and to take the lead on developing an update of the local comprehensive plan.
While the comprehensive plan update will be a long-term process, the board plans to begin work on the Site Plan Review Ordinance (SPRO) at its next regular meeting.
The current SPRO is “diabolically imprecise,” according to board chairman Peter d’Entremont, and board members were clearly frustrated with the lack of teeth in the existing ordinance during their meeting on Monday, November 12. That frustration came from two recent incidents—the Mud Run and a commercial development on South Street—where board members indicated they did not have the tools to effectively deal with the applications. In the instance of the South Street proposal, they said that under the current ordinance, they could not demand that the developer tell them specifically how he planned to use the property.
“Our job is to protect the town,” said Code Enforcement Officer Judy Jenkins, “but there was nothing we could do.”
Although it was not discussed at length during the meeting, the controversy over Blue Hill Memorial Hospital’s purchase of two buildings on Parker Point Road also has heightened the concerns over having an effective ordinance in place. Anything the hospital does in terms of expansion or dealing with those two buildings will have to come before the board, which would have to review the project under the SPRO, d’Entremont said.
“We need an ordinance that provides clear criteria for both the board and the applicant,” he said.
He also suggested that the board base its revision of the ordinance on a state model specifically designed for communities where there is minimal commercial development and a small local staff. That defines Blue Hill’s situation, he said, adding that it appeared the state model would provide a good place for the board to start.
“It seems to avoid some of the complexity of the current plan,” he said. “It just gets to the point.”
Jenkins noted that the town of Orland, where she also serves as code enforcement officer, recently updated its ordinance using the state model and said the process went smoothly. She said the board there had adapted the model to fit local situations and that Blue Hill likely would do the same.
While the board by consensus agreed to move ahead with a revision of the SPRO, board members were a little more cautious about d’Entremont’s suggestion that they consider including design standards in the ordinance. Although he said the board would need to proceed carefully, d’Entremont said that design standards could be included in the ordinance even though the town does not have a zoning ordinance. Standards, he said, could include items such as lighting, parking and even aesthetics. That’s where some board members balked.
Vaughn Leach said that the board should be careful setting aesthetic standards.
“What might look good to someone, might not to someone else,” he said.
Fern Leach was even more direct.
“I don’t want to set the board up to decide what the sensibilities of the town are,” he said.
D’Entremont said the town did not need an architectural review board, but suggested that design standards would provide criteria for the board to review an application objectively.
“It’s reasonable to require that a drawing be produced so people can see what’s being planned,” he said. “They just need to show us what they’re going to do. And I think that will force the applicants to think a little more before the come to us.”
Although they won’t start the process until the next meeting, d’Entremont said it might be possible for the board to complete work on revisions in time to present the new ordinance to voters at the annual town meeting in April.
Discussion about revising the comprehensive plan was less detailed. D’Entremont said the selectmen have backed the concept to revisit the plan, but urged the board to tread lightly, not to try to “shove something down the throat” of the town. The town is still operating under a comprehensive plan that was approved in 1991, which he described as “largely meaningless” and “quite old.” In 2006, voters rejected a proposed revision of the plan that had gone through numerous different drafts and had gotten a lot of people upset, d’Entremont said.
Board members hoped to avoid that kind of controversy. Ken Charles said he’d like to see a more positive document come out of the process.
“I’d like to see an encouraging, positive type of ordinance that doesn’t discourage people,” he said.
D’Entremont said he thought the planning board, which has to deal with the results of a comprehensive plan, would be the best group to lead the revision. But he also suggested one way to avoid the controversy that developed in 2006 was to gather information, both from those on the committee who created the 2006 plan and from those who were most outspoken in their opposition to that plan.
The board made no specific plans, however, on how or when to begin that process.