Originally published in The Weekly Packet, December 12, 2013
Commercial Site Plan Review Ordinance
Sparse turnout for Blue Hill ordinance hearing, vote to take place in April
by Rich Hewitt
Few people turned out Monday, December 9, for the public hearing on proposed revisions to the town’s commercial site plan review ordinance.
But, Peter d’Entremont, chairman of the Blue Hill Planning Board, joked that the four people at the hearing, including two of the town’s selectmen, probably constituted a record turnout for an ordinance hearing.
Selectman Vaughn Leach kicked off the hearing, questioning the board about previous reports that the revisions to the ordinance would allow the board to require that applicants divulge what use was planned for a proposed project. Leach said he could not find that provision in the summary of changes that the board had provided.
That issue had frustrated the board in recent years with some applications, including one on South Street where the applicant refused to identify the planned use for a commercial building he was proposing.
It turns out that that requirement is not part of the revisions since the board already has that authority under the existing ordinance.
“There’s more language in the ordinance that allows us to ask that question than we thought,” said board member Susan Walsh.
Board members referred to the existing ordinance under the “purpose” section, which states that “the purpose of the site plan review is to promote public health, safety and general welfare by requiring CEO or Planning Board review of certain uses or structures which have a significant potential impact on the neighborhood or environment…”
Since the reference to “use” already was part of the ordinance, the board members indicated that they did not need to revise the ordinance in order to require that an applicant state the use.
However, d’Entremont noted that the requirement had never been included in the actual permit application.
“It is stated in the ordinance in a certain way, but if it’s not on the application it can fly under the radar,” he said. “It’s not fair to the applicant or to the board if something is not on the application.”
Now, he said, it will be on the application, so “it is going to be stated.”
Although the proposed revisions will not go to a town vote until the annual town meeting next spring, the planning board, at the urging of member Marcia Henderson, voted at its meeting after the hearing to include the requirement on the application immediately.
The board instructed Code Enforcement Officer Judy Jenkins to add that requirement. Jenkins noted that she also would “clean-up” the application and include other information the board had previously discussed. No one was quite sure what that other information included, but Jenkins said she would meet with board secretary Liz Howe and Henderson to review previous discussions.
Selectman John Bannister asked whether a developer’s statement of intended use was binding. Jenkins noted that major changes to an approved application generally would have to come back to her or the planning board. A change of use from a clothing store to a restaurant, for example, would trigger different requirements for parking, plumbing and others, both local and state, she said.
“They would have to come back to us to amend the application,” she said.
Although the proposed revisions do not change any of the existing standards in the ordinance, it does include language that allows the board to require more information about a proposed project. That information could include a visual impact statement such as a photo simulation—something that could be done with Adobe PhotoShop, d’Entremont said—that would give the board an idea of what a planned project will look like.
“This will help the board understand a project better,” he said. “It is something we owe to the town to bring things out into the open as much as possible.”
It will help the board and the public understand “…what is going to land on our doorstep,” he said.
Member Ken Charles noted that the board had asked questions of voters in a poll at the last annual town meeting and they had indicated that they were concerned about the impact of a development project.
“We did ask questions,” he said. “Some people want to know how things are going to look.”
Bannister questioned one of the definition changes in the revised ordinance. The definition for “height of a structure” would be “the vertical distance between the mean original (prior to construction) grade at the downhill side of the structure and the highest point of the structure excluding chimneys….” The reason for the change noted that it was to ensure a shorter building. Bannister asked if the board’s intent was to mandate shorter buildings in town.
“When you say ‘ensure,’ that’s fighting words to some people, when you try to ensure something,” he said.
D’Entremont noted that the town had no height requirements for buildings outside of the shoreland zone and indicated that the board was not trying to establish any with the definition. He said that using the downhill side as a starting point for measuring the height of a building, ultimately would result in a shorter building. But he and other board members noted that the definition was one that has been used in other town ordinances that have been adopted or updated more recently than the 2002 commercial site plan review ordinance.
The intent of the change in definition, they said, was to ensure consistency with the town shoreland zone ordinance. During the meeting after the hearing, the board changed the reason for the definition change to reflect that.
Leach asked if there was any urgency that would require the town to adopt the changes at a special town meeting rather than at the annual town meeting in the spring.
D’Entremont noted that there are some significant changes proposed in the revisions that allow the board to require the developer to provide more information than in the past. If a major development came before the board before the regular town meeting, he said, the board would have to use the current requirements.
“We’ve worked on these changes for a long time, we’re familiar with them and we’re comfortable with them,” he said. “It would be nice to begin using them sooner rather than later.”
Bannister said it appeared that most of the major proposed changes were already allowed in the ordinance. Both he and Leach indicated that they saw no need to schedule a special town meeting.