Crowd turns out to discuss potential zoning change
A large crowd turned out June 20 to air thoughts regarding a potential change to allow three High Street inns to expand services offered to the public.
In the end, majority support from the planning board was not gained and the issue is not expected to remain in the limelight.
Owners of 6, 8 and 9 High St. — Hawthorne Inn, Windward House and Abigail's Inn — made a proposal to the planning board to create a new zone for the properties that would allow restaurants open to the public, spa services and retail shopping. Currently, the bed and breakfasts are allowed only to serve breakfast and an afternoon snack to guests, according to town rules.
In materials presented to the planning board, Jesse and Kristi Bifulco, owners of Windward House, said allowing a change of use would allow the smalls inns to compete better, particularly during winter months. The materials suggest creating a new business zone, B5, and permitted use, "Multi Use Lodging."
Within Camden zoning rules, there is no definition for bed and breakfast establishments. Currently, the three businesses are located in the Traditional Village (V) zone and defined as inns — "A type of lodging based in the permanent dwelling of the person or family acting as proprietor and that accommodates for a fee travelers and other transient guests who are staying for a limited duration.
"An inn (1) has ten or fewer sleeping rooms offered for rent; (2) does not provide full service dining, but may serve breakfast and/or an afternoon snack to guests only, and (3) may be licensed to host up to eight special functions per year, including the serving of meals to such gatherings, provided that written notification is provided to the Code Enforcement Officer and that parking for such functions is provided on-site or through other off-street arrangements. An inn located on a nonconforming lot shall be subject to the terms of Article VI, Section 2(2)(c) of this Ordinance."
The meeting, at times, became confrontational, with people on opposite sides making remarks out of turn and addressing members of the audience. The defensive and divisive tone was set early on by Jesse Bifulco who, after explaining his position, abruptly left the podium and said, "I've finished my statement."
Owners and operators of the other two inns also spoke. Hawthorne Inn owner Mary Ann Shannahan explained the three businesses were seeking two things: increased flexibility with victualer licenses and an increased number of events allowed per year. While materials for the meeting cited several other options, Abigail's Inn owner Elizabeth O'Connor said the businesses were offering the "much more scaled down version" based on concerns from neighbors.
"You can scratch off us having a huge function hall with pole dancers...no Wal-Mart in the parking lot or golden arches on the front of our houses," O'Connor said.
Planning Board Chairman Chris MacLean read the names of 35 people who had communicated with the planning board via letter or email prior to the meeting. Less than a third of those communications were characterized as being in favor of changing the zoning, though MacLean stated several times he did not like to assign them to for and against positions.
During the next three and a half hours, nearly 30 people addressed the planning board; some of the speakers also previously submitted letters on behalf of themselves or other interested parties.
Longtime Camden resident Dyke Messler said the issues "has to do with the soul of Camden." He told the planning board Camden has long been seeking its own identity and while he is a supporter of local business, he said he feels there is not a need for more restaurants in Camden. Messler warned the planning board to beware of spot zoning and discouraged "the Freeporting of Camden."
High Street resident Deb Dodge presented an informal petition bearing 94 signatures of residents opposed to changing the character of the area. She questioned the meaning of increasing flexibility with victualer licenses for the establishments.
Code Enforcement Officer Steve Wilson noted bed and breakfasts have a very specific license that allows serving of breakfast to guests as well as an afternoon snack.
Dodge continued and described the possible changes as "precedent setting."
Others spoke in favor, including Hillary Steinau.
"I don't think any of these B&Bs want a huge spa," she said, adding the owners should be allowed retail space for such things as a case of locally-made jewelery. Steinau noted small local businesses retain money spent and reinvest in the community. "The money is going to go right back into the community."
Betsy Perry, who said she has lived on High Street for 17 years, spoke of the importance of historical character.
"If we lose the historical character, we become Bar Harbor, Boothbay or Freeport," she said. "This issue is not about being friendly to business, it's about zoning. I'm very much opposed to any of this."
Carla Fergeson spoke in favor of change.
"People talk about traffic, but it's Route 1," she said, adding the town "thinks it's historic." Her words started whispers among the crowd, leading MacLean to admonish the audience against interrupting speakers.
"I know that people have strong feelings about this," MacLean said. "But it needs to be done in a respectful way. Whispering in the back is disrespectful to speakers."
Meg Barclay spoke on behalf of the Historic Resources Commission, of which she is a member, and said the committee is not in favor of changes because the current owners will not always be the owners of the properties. That sentiment was echoed by other speakers as well, including Selectman Leonard Lookner.
"When we change a zone, we don't change it for people," he said. "...they could sell the day after tomorrow to someone we don't like so much."
Lookner also noted the original intent of allowing owners of large homes to rent rooms was not to create a business but "to help supplement their livelihoods" and offset the rising prices of fuel.
"They were never meant to be a business to support families," he said, noting the properties already are operating under a variance because they are on less than 2 acres, as required by current zoning.
Several residents and local business owners took a more neutral tone regarding the possible changes, including Whitehall Inn owner Russ Miller.
"I do not wish to take a position," he said. "But I do take exception to the way this is being gone about."
Miller suggested the three owners approach the planning board individually to seek additional variances as they each are requesting different changes. Earlier in the meeting, O'Connor said Abigail's Inn only wanted to be able to serve guests dinner; Windward House hoped to be allowed to serve food to the general public and Hawthorne Inn was seeking to host more than eight events per year.
Planning Board members also shared their thoughts on the matter.
"I ended up at the end of the meeting when I began," Jan MacKinnon said, adding she is still confused about what the actual request is.
Richard Householder said he feels the historic houses on High Street add value to the town and are a resource that should be protected.
"This proposal does not add any value to Camden and I'm firmly opposed to it," he said.
Lowrie Sargent described the proposal as "a moving target" and said he could not support it as it was presented. He noted the three owners were advised early on in the process to involve neighbors and the public; yet it wasn't done until a few days before the planning board meeting.
"I can't support it because I don't know what it is," Sargent said.
MacLean said he "put no stock" in the ratio of letters, emails and speakers but noted there was not majority support from the planning board.
"It seems fairly innocuous," he said. "I don't think there's support on the board to continue."
He said the planning board will not be pushing the issue to the select board and does not plan to host additional public meetings at this time.
Courier Publications Editor Stephanie Grinnell can be reached at 236-8511 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.