The Select Board agreed to hold a public hearing on the school district's request for a zoning change to allow a building height of 38 feet on Knowlton Street, where a new middle school will be constructed.

Board members voted unanimously to hold the public hearing Dec. 5 on the proposed zoning change in the Traditional Village District to allow a building height of 38 feet on lots on which public schools existed in 2017. The public hearing will be advertised, and held at 6:30 p.m. in the Washington Street Conference Room.

Planning Board member Jeff Senders explained the request by School Administrative District 28 to raise the height limit to 38 feet on the Camden Rockport Middle School property in order to accommodate the new school building. He said the request to exceed the height limit is a result of the building's being further back on the property from Knowlton Street than the current school buildings, and the topography of the site. The Planning Board recently approved the zoning change to be sent to the Select Board for review.

The building height limit is 30 feet in the Traditional Village District, where the school building is located. Some of the school buildings on the property exceed the height restriction: the Mary E. Taylor building, built in the 1920s, is 41 feet high. The school's gymnasium is 31 feet high.

Senders responded to questions from Select Board members Bob Falciani, John French, Jenna Lookner, Alison McKellar and Mark Ratner.

McKellar asked whether in the future the zoning change would allow any building on the site to be built to 38 feet high, not limited to a school building. Senders agreed it would, noting that the neighboring zone allows buildings 50 feet high. McKellar said that while she was not overly concerned about the height of the new middle school building, she wanted to know if the Mary E. Taylor building were knocked down, could the school district build a new 38-foot-high building on the site. She alluded to unintended consequences. Senders said he was also concerned about unintended consequences, and did not disagree that a new building could be constructed to that height.

French said he understood that one corner of the new middle school building brings the height to 38 feet, because of the site's topography. He believes the new middle school building will have a minimal impact on the Traditional Village Zone zone, and that the height resolves a problem to get a better design, and makes more sense for access that complies with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Falciani suggested wording to make the zoning change language more specific to school buildings. He asked for feedback the Planning Board received during the two public hearings it held on the height change request.

Senders said one person had questions about the determination of the building height and was satisfied when it was clarified that because the new middle school building will be set back from Knowlton Street, the height of the school building will appear similar to the residential properties there. He said another person objected to the height change request based on the fact that the height limit of the district was known in advance of the new school development, and that other schools in the area incorporate stairs. Senders indicated that Planning Board members considered compliance with the ADA a significant factor in their decision.

Ratner asked if the zoning change would require a new building to be a school building. Senders said the wording of the ordinance did not specify a new building would have to be a school building.

Ratner called the building plan a safer and more accessible building. He said that at the second Planning Board hearing that included abutters, two residents with abutting properties attended, and both spoke in favor of the new middle school building.

Lookner asked if the site could be backfilled to a higher level, and a new 38-foot-high building built on top. Senders said ordinances are carefully written to prevent this type of thing from occurring, and that the allowed height is based on the current grade of the property.

McKellar asked how a public vote on the issue would be handled. Senders said the public vote would be held at a special town meeting, and that this currently was standard procedure.

Flood plain ordinance change

Town Manager Audra Caler Bell said a flood plain ordinance would also be voted on at the same special town meeting as the zoning request to change the building height limit on the middle school property. She said special town meetings are used to address zoning changes out of necessity.

A new zoning ordinance adopted in June 2016, regarding buildings constructed or substantially modified in the coastal floodplain velocity zone contains language that makes it more stringent than state and federal standards. The proposed change to this new zoning ordinance is to change the wording so that it will conform with state and federal rules.

The zoning change in question pertains to a requirement that the space below the lowest floor of buildings in the coastal plain velocity area must be constructed with “non-supporting breakaway walls that have a design safe loading resistance of not less than 10 or more than 20 pounds per square foot.” The zoning change proposes to remove language in Camden's ordinance that directs this breakaway structure to “to enclose less than 300 square feet of area.”