Rockland residents worry zone change will erase their residential neighborhood

By Stephen Betts | Jan 03, 2019
Photo by: Stephen Betts Prospect Street abuts the area eyed for rezoning to a business park.

Rockland — Thomas Whiting says he is concerned that the rezoning of 20 acres off Pleasant Street could eventually wipe his historic rural residential neighborhood off the map.

City councilors met with residents Wednesday night, Jan. 2, to discuss the proposed business park zoning and repeatedly offered assurances that there were sufficient protections in the zoning laws to address their concerns about noise, lighting and traffic.

And a real estate agent said there was a technology company interested in locating on some of the land, bringing 40 jobs to Rockland, if the zoning change was approved.

Doug Erickson said he had received a number of calls interested in the MaineHealth building and property on Pleasant Street, which is part of the area being eyed for rezoning. Erickson said one technology company is interested in moving there if the property is changed to a business park zone.

He said if that firm were to locate there, traffic generated by the business would be half what it was when the building was used by patients and staff of the home health agency. He said light industry is ideal for this area.

Numerous neighbors who live both on the Pleasant Street side and the Holmes Street side of the proposed park voiced their concerns about bringing in industries to an area that is residential; and on a narrow, winding, hilly street.

Councilor Amelia Magjik argued, however, that the city has listened to those concerns. "What I'm hearing repeatedly is hooray for lower taxes, but not in my backyard. I hear you, we all hear you. Tom [City Manager Tom Luttrell] and Julie [Economic Development Director Julie Hashem] have bent over backwards six different times now. Revisions on revisions on revisions to meet your demands. If we want lower taxes, but not in our backyard, where do we get lower taxes?" Magjik said.

She said the business park zone being proposed adds protections for the neighbors, including prohibiting activities that are annoying, obnoxious, or pose a danger to the safety or comfort of people.

She said if the zoning change is approved, any future developer would have to appear before the Rockland Planning Board, which would make sure that the development meets those conditions. Residents can attend those meeting and state their concerns.

The assurances, however, did not allay the residents' concerns.

Whiting said he had come before the Planning Board many years ago when a  microwave tower was proposed for the neighborhood, and the plan was approved despite studies he provided about the risk to residents.

He said the proposed business park and the city's comprehensive plan to extend commercial development in this area threaten to wipe the residential neighborhood off the map. Whiting said some of the homes in this rural area of the city were in existence before Rockland was incorporated as a city (1854).

Whiting has lived at the property since 1989. He said he and his wife purchased their property because she wanted to live in an old farmhouse on top of a hill surrounded by fields. The Prospect Home fit those wishes, he said.

"These weren't the homes of sea captains located downtown. They were the common people," Whiting said.

This was the fourth attempt to rezone the land abutting the residences, he pointed out.

Peter Digirolamo of Holmes Street was among several other neighbors who voiced concern about the impact on the homes in that area. He said the property is more appropriate for residences, noting the proximity to downtown and a school.

Anne Mahle said she and her husband have been at their Holmes Street property for 25 years, and it is a quiet neighborhood; she was concerned the change would impact that environment.

Other residents voiced concern about traffic on the Pleasant Street side. Luttrell pointed out that truck traffic going into the parcels would be directed toward Route 1 and not toward the intersection with Broadway. Weight limits are in place to prevent large trucks on the stretch of Pleasant nearer Broadway.

The manager said police have conducted speed details to catch speeding motorists. The city has also proposed having a crosswalk at the intersection with Broadway, but has not received a reply from the Maine Department of Transportation.

Some neighbors expressed concerns about noise from construction of any development. Mayor Lisa Westkaemper pointed out that construction of residences would also create noise, and that any commercial construction would be temporary.

Another resident said the area is rural, with deer frequenting the properties. Westkaemper said the deer would relocate to other rural areas.

Another neighbor asked why the city did not rezone the land at Maverick Street and Camden Street for a Walgreens, but is willing to rezone this property. Westkaemper said while that issue occurred before she came to Rockland, the council was not giving preference to one group of neighbors over another.

In that controversy, the City Council had voted to approve a zoning change for Walgreens in August 2008, despite strong opposition from neighbors. Neighbors began a petition drive and forced a referendum and in December 2008, voters citywide repealed the zoning change 892-521.

In the current zoning dispute, the council gave the business park zoning change preliminary approval in October. Revisions have been made since then, and a formal public hearing and final vote on the measure are scheduled for Jan. 14.

Whiting did not comment Thursday on whether a repeal effort -- similar to the one to overturn the Walgreens zoning change -- would be launched if the council adopts the business park zone.

There are five contiguous privately-owned parcels on the south side of Pleasant Street that are currently a mix of Residential B and Transitional B 2 zones, which would become a business park zone under the proposed change.

The largest of the five parcels is nearly 12 acres owned by MaineHealth, where the home health office building sits. Another two are residential lots owned by Everett Mank. The Rockland Little League ballfield is another of the lots. Even if the zone is finalized, a ballfield will be an allowed use in the business park, meaning that the Little League can remain there, but if the association wants to move, the land could be developed for business use.

The city's Comprehensive Planning Commission voted unanimously that the proposed changes in zoning were in conformance with the Comprehensive Plan. The plan projects that the area south of Pleasant Street and west of Broadway will likely evolve into an industrial area.

The Rockland Economic Development Advisory Committee also gave its support in a memo. "Please know that REDAC discussed at length the proposed ordinances with city staff, Rockland Main Street Inc., and the Pen Bay Chamber of Commerce, and agrees that these ordinance changes will help the development of Pleasant Street, the economic vitally of Rockland with the prospect of additional small business space, and help increase property values in the area," the memo stated.

Luttrell has said that while the city would not be creating a business park, the changes would allow a private developer to come in and create one.

City officials have pointed out that there is a shortage of developable land in the city for commercial and light industrial uses.

This is an aerial graphic of the area that includes the parcels proposed to be rezoned to a business park zone. The parcel in yellow is the MaineHealth property off Pleasant Street in Rockland. (Photo by: City of Rockland)
Comments (10)
Posted by: Adam S Ackor | Jan 07, 2019 16:27

My comments clearly do not in any way discourage or discount one's right to speak on any topic they so choose.  Accusing councilors of dismissing residents concerns, or alleging that councilors haven't lived here long enough to execute their responsibilities, is in my view a cowardly and feckless attempt to foment negativity.

Posted by: Amy Files | Jan 06, 2019 10:57

In response to Adam's comment. To suggest that simply because I don't speak out on every issue means that I then don't have a right to speak out on another issue -- really? Is that the weight of responsibility we need to bear if we want to share our opinion? We are only allowed to speak on one issue if we then spend the same time and energy on every single issue that comes up? And that's a classic pivot -- ignore the issue at hand, being discussed, and bring up something else to change the subject.

Yes -- I have lived here for only a relatively short time -- about 6 years now. But I became involved in our local politics very early on due to a very similar issue -- a zone change that abutted our property. And from then on have been to numerous planning board meetings and council meetings and have some experience and understanding of how the process works -- particularly when it comes to the flexibility that the Planning Board has (or doesn't have) when it comes to approval of projects that may face concerns from residents.

Yes, I did vote, as a Comps member, that this ordinance aligns with our current Comprehensive Plan. And that is because, as a member of Comps, our vote is based on whether or not something aligns with the plan (and not our personal opinion). But it is my personal opinion, this particular vision laid out in the plan is questionable for a slew of reasons, including assumptions that never came to fruition, change in needs in regards to our housing, as well uninformed planning (planning to surround our schools with an industrial park), and questionable public input (to decide that a certain residential neighborhood should be phased out of existence).

Suggesting that simply because residents have concerns about a proposal should equate to my also being "against" a proposal would suggest that no plan ever that has residential concerns should be supported. And that is ridiculous. It also really belittles residential concerns -- suggesting people are always just being "NIMBY" and that their concerns are never valid. I am advocating that when residential concerns are valid that they should be listened to -- which is always the case -- and responded to -- whether or not a policy ends up being passed. And that when those concerns are also paired with other issues (in this case my concerns about the original intent of this particular Comps vision, confused planning goals, and social/environmental justice issues that arise when placing our industry in the more affordable areas of our City), that that policy may not be in the best interest of the community. Every issue is different and nuanced. This one in particular is based on a presumption that a whole neighborhood of homes should be phased out of existence -- that is pretty serious and threatens the livelihoods and existence of many residents -- it's not comparable to the other proposals you brought up (and those are both other issues that have many nuances and reasons for why I did or did not support them -- too long to go into here).


Posted by: Adam S Ackor | Jan 04, 2019 16:12

I think that it would also be fair to note that Ms Files hasn't lived in Rockland for very long either, and she is also a member of the COMPS committee that voted unanimously affirming that this proposal conforms with the COMP plan.  Our city staff is doing exactly what we should all hope they will do.  They are working creatively to come up with ways to increase investment and broaden our tax base.  Nothing is certain, but doing nothing will certainly yield nothing as well.  The city council is also doing exactly as we should all hope they will do, weighing the pros and cons.  There will always be someone who considers themselves on the losing end of any issue.  It's no small thing, but the potential benefits of the city at large at present and for the future, have to be weighed against the potential detriment to those who are most likely to be immediately impacted.  I don't hear Ms Files speak out against the Solar Farm project though there were several residents who came to our meetings voicing concerns...I also don't hear Ms Files speaking out against the Marijuana ordinances, though there have been many residents voicing concerns about that.  Disagreement is great, normal and part of the process, but making accusations against councilors for "dismissing resident's concerns" or saying "a couple of councilors haven't lived here long enough to understand the planning process" is counterproductive simply untrue.

Posted by: Amy Files | Jan 04, 2019 13:18

Also -- not for nothing -- but there is a huge amount of unused space down in the Tilson Avenue area that does not abut a residential neighborhood... if we are looking for more business/commercial space -- it certainly exists.

Posted by: Amy Files | Jan 04, 2019 13:15

I find it very disconcerting to see our Councilors dismissing resident concerns. The comments in this article make it sound like resident concerns area nuisance. At least a couple of our Councilors really haven't lived in Rockland long enough to have experienced the planning process that occurs here when a proposal is brought to the Planning Board. It is very difficult for the Planning Board, both due to culture and legal reasons, to not approve a project -- even when there are legitimate concerns from neighbors and residents. Residents really rely on Councilors to protect their homes and properties -- not the Planning Board. As Mr. Whiting expressed above -- for many people their home is their sole and life investment. The accusation of the "not in my backyard" argument is easy for those to make when the development will not be in their backyard. When someone purchases a home in our City -- they should have reasonable peace of mind that the zone surrounding their home will stay in tact and that their home will be protected from encroaching development. While the current Comprehensive Plan did envision this neighborhood be slowly developed Industrial -- I believe that that plan is now outdated due to issues that arose and developments that did not pan out. And I highly doubt that the property and homeowners who live in this neighborhood were consulted about this adopted goal when the plan was originally ratified -- a goal to phase their homes out of existence. It's very problematic to have one group of people make a decision that another group of people's homes are not worth preserving. To anyone who would suggest this as "NIMBY" I would ask whether you a) own your own home; and b) would be okay with a large business being plopped down next to it. It sounds nice that the proposed business may be a relatively low-impact "tech" business -- but whenever we change a zone -- we open up the potential to whatever is allowed within that zone and so all unintended consequences of higher impact or future justification to further change the zone need to be considered now.

Posted by: Ian Emmott | Jan 04, 2019 10:15

I love how folks are when RSU 13 passes its budget... not a peep yet its like 51%  of taxes or something like that. Literally like 25 people in the room passing the articles with no debate. All passed in the name of education. Give the Council a break!

Posted by: Thomas Whiting | Jan 04, 2019 02:47

As a citizen who is quoted in this article, I feel compelled to respond. My property is the long, skinny lot which abuts this zone change. This is the 4th time the city has changed the zone designation on the abutting parcel since I purchased my property 30 years ago. Most of the acreage was zoned residential when I moved here, but has now eroded into commercial activity. This change will convert yet more residential zoned acreage into commercial activities and allow for a much greater density of those activities. For many of us, our properties may be one of the largest investments we make in our lives and we rely upon consistent zone designations to offer us a modicum of protection for those investments. This time, I am confronted with not only another zone change to the adjacent properties, but also included in the package is a significant lowering of the setback requirements and big increases to the allowable building sizes and lot coverage. Given that there is no proposal to develop any particular business concern on the lots for us to consider the implication of, but is a bid by the city to create a zone favorable to attract development, we, the abutting citizens are left to conjecture upon the worst case scenarios that the zone designation will allow. I could very likely be looking at a 100 yard long building with 40 foot tall walls 50 feet away from the edge of my property very soon. Please forgive me for attempting to protect my lifetime of effort by engaging in the process. I thank the city for responding to my concerns and changing the language that would have allowed 500 pounds of explosives or the bulk storage of petroleum products 50 feet away from a residence, but I do not consider that to be a gift, merely common sense.

After having been subjected to 4 zone changes on the adjacent property over the years, my opinion of zoning regulations here in Rockland, through those experiences, is that zone designations are worth little more than the paper they are printed upon and may be changed upon the whims of the currently seated city government.

The city is also currently in the process of making significant changes to Res.AA, Res A, Res B, RR1, RR2 and BP zones. The changes significantly reduce setbacks, increase coverage and footprints and lower frontage requirements. I urge all property owners to inform yourselves of the pending changes in order to contemplate how they may impact your interests. The comment period for these changes will soon be over. The changes most likely will be adopted and become law within a few more city council sessions. Tom Whiting, Rockland Citizen

Posted by: Kendall Merriam | Jan 03, 2019 18:33

The city of Rockland missed a BIG opportunity to lower taxes when the Voc. Tech School was allowed to expand on waterfront property that could have been used for high-end - or any type - of housing that would generate taxes. The old Voc. Tech bld. will be torn down. A newer building, which is needed, could have been built in any of several other locations. The school (nor any school) does not generate taxes.

Posted by: Mary A McKeever | Jan 03, 2019 12:42

Rockland is growing so fast there is no commence sense here. I agree with you Francis, zoning in such a rural area? And yes it WAS a rural area and brings it closer to town industry. Rockland's growth, in my opinion, is based on how much money the leaders can garnish in salary via taxes. People have to pay the price and with wages going up, costs and the taxes grow proportionately. Solution? Perhaps reassess the zoning process and perhaps redefine the rural areas. But surely keep thoughts of how much is "enough" for the taxpayers.

Posted by: Francis Mazzeo, Jr. | Jan 03, 2019 11:45

You had to know the people involved in the Walgreen's deal. They advertised a public meeting to find out peoples opinions on city zoning. The real issue was to gain support against Walgreen's. I attended and it became obvious to me that increasing the tax base was not a concern. Residents in Pleasant St area have concerns, as should be, but somewhere along the way we need a stronger tax base. What will benefit the city residents as a whole is the issue. A good example was the McDougal School land. Housing would have brought in taxes, but again the special interest group won out.

If you wish to comment, please login.