Re-vision zoning with an eye to coexistence

By Chelsea Maude Avirett | Jun 30, 2016

Over the last two years, City Council has considered at least eight specific requests to rezone parcels. Some of these are minor changes, such as the Mid-Coast School of Technology’s request for a one-word change to the code so they could rebuild the school at its current location.

Other changes affect multiple lots, such as the recent change of four properties in the Belvedere/Pleasant Street area from Transitional Business to Commercial in response to a property owner’s request.

The first of these zoning changes is always going to come before City Council as unexpected opportunities arise and property owners wish to take advantage of them.

But most of the zone changes that Council has considered occur because the city’s current zoning policy is a mess. Rockland has too many zones — 26 separate ones, in fact. Some of these zones are scattered throughout the city, including places that don’t fit well with their surrounding zones; the small industrial pockets that are surrounded by residential areas are a good example.

Finally, buffers between zones are being steadily erased as Council prioritizes reactive, “quick fix” approaches to zoning rather than focusing on a comprehensive zoning policy that consolidates zones and responsibly transitions between various uses.

The two most recent zoning discussions, whether to rezone two lots on Pleasant Street to industrial and how to accommodate a neighborhood restaurant on Main Street, both show the problems of not having a comprehensive and proactive approach to zoning.

The lack of available industrial lots in Rockland is a significant issue and a place that re-evaluating zoning would encourage business development in the area. Currently the lack of industrial lots means the city is considering requests on an as-they-happen basis, effectively spot-zoning parcels that are large enough to accommodate a business.

This means that buffer areas aren’t being created or maintained. It also means, however, that we aren’t proactively determining where business growth can — and should — occur, limiting the ability of businesses to identify places they can (re)locate.

A comprehensive approach to zoning would also eliminate the oddities of how the city creates buffer zones. The discussion about whether a restaurant could go into the former Terra Optima Market space on Main Street is a good example of the weakness inherent in our current zoning.

While our zoning permits a fair number of mixed-use buildings, it currently does not allow a restaurant in a transitional business zone — only in commercial. That’s understandable in the current code because there’s no distinction between a restaurant and a bar that doesn’t close until 2 a.m. The former would easily co-exist with neighbors; the latter does not.

City Council responded to the request to allow a restaurant to locate on Main Street situation by allowing restaurants that close before 10 p.m. in Transitional Business zones. That’s a thoughtful addition to the zone because it allows for mixed-used, neighborhood-friendly development while protecting residents from disruptive noise.

But the larger discussion was emblematic of the city’s failure to plan comprehensively. Councilors realized that the blocks in question are sandwiched between two commercial zones and that the transition is awkward and discourages reasonable development. But the plan to resolve that concern was to ask Comps to examine that particular section of town and consider other zoning options.

Considering that the city’s overall zoning ineffectively buffers abutting residential and commercial uses, re-evaluating a single set of two blocks will merely perpetuate the zoning problems. Instead, City Council needs to direct Comps — and provide professional planning assistance for what would be an intensive and long process — to re-evaluate each zone, consolidating our current zones into fewer and better-defined zones and considering how zones and buildings interact with each other.

The major issue with our zones is that they currently fail to consider how various uses interact with each other. This means that some businesses — like a small neighborhood restaurant — that would co-exist easily and beneficially with residents isn’t permitted in a zone where it would enhance the neighborhood. This is because the focus has been on the type of business — restaurant — rather on the business’s interaction with the community and how disruptive it would be. What other businesses could be brought into the city if our zoning were more responsive to change? In other words, the city should create fewer zones but enact stronger protections for where different uses abut.

This benefits residents by giving them certainty about what kind of development might occur near them; it benefits businesses as well because the city could encourage more business development throughout the city without negatively impacting the surrounding areas.

Some of this work will naturally occur as the Comprehensive Planning Commission considers chapter 19 of the Comprehensive Plan. But the current revision of the plan is not sufficient to re-evaluate zoning. That requires an explicit and detailed re-visioning of our plan for the city, which City Council has not explicitly directed or even encouraged.

Chelsea Maude Avirett is a freelance writer and teacher.

Comments (2)
Posted by: Kathryn Fogg | Jul 01, 2016 19:50

I can only imagine the implementation of a buffer zone between commercial zones and residential was to protect the residential zone as commercial zones got busier and busier.  Such a buffer zone existed between Grace and Park Street.  Then at  least some of the buffer zones were changed to commercial as it was said a buffer zone was useless. The commercial owner of  it could do nothing with it. Wasn't that the idea?  The code office held that the residences were well protected because of the trees that were required to be planted.  You mean those ones that could take 50 years before they fully screen a property?



Posted by: Amy Files | Jul 01, 2016 08:02

Thank you for writing this! The members of the Comprehensive Planning Commission recently discussed this issue at our last meeting and sent a memo to council that touched upon it. It is extremely frustrating to be asked to make "spot" changes under duress (if we don't do this "right now!" the business who is requesting it will be hurt or shutdown). In just one year, we have been asked at least four times to make these spot zoning changes per the request of an individual or business. Many times the individual whose land or business is at stake is in the room, sitting at the table with us, really putting us in a spot that we shouldn't be in as a body that should be considering decisions like this over months, not one evening.

But unfortunately the problem is larger than simply what you've suggested. Yes, Council should be directing us to look at zoning more comprehensively. They should also take on the responsibility to NOT direct us to consider what they know to be obvious spot zoning.

But Council has directed us to look at larger swaths of areas to re-zone. We spent months (along with many other committees and volunteers) working on a new overlay zone for the Camden Street corridor. But after our work was done and came back to Council, it seemed that some on council had forgotten what they'd tasked us to do in the first place and questioned some of the very basic goals that we'd been directed to meet.

And when it comes to funding the infrastructure that sometimes accompanies these changes (in this case, new sidewalks, bike paths and traffic redirection) -- the public is no longer in the loop and there is little support. What begins with workshops and education fizzles out and it seems there is no longer desire or care for these longterm projects.

Just take a look at plans that the city has invested in -- like the Waterfront Development plan -- mostly forgotten and gathering dust. Every once in a while it pops up but any serious movement is stalled.

For this reason I would strongly advocate that the City hire a city planner. This is a STANDARD position in many cities -- Belfast has not just one but also an additional assistant planner. And for Rockland, which is clearly experiencing a time of growth, it is absolutely necessary.

From what I have heard, some had a negative experience the last time a planner was in town. But if we hire the right person, we will have continuance, advocacy and the knowledge and expertise we need to ensure that these projects are taken on and followed through to a successful finish.

 



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