The Courier-Gazette editorial

Zoning by afterthought?

By The Courier-Gazette Editorial Board | Mar 27, 2014

We would not trade places with members of the city Planning Board right now.

They are poised to get an earful at the April 1 public hearing regarding the Center for Maine Contemporary Art's plans to move to Winter Street in Rockland. We expect many of the voices at the meeting will be in support of the project.

We are among the supporters of this project. CMCA fits Rockland's downtown. In the past few decades, Rockland has experienced a renaissance downtown that has kept it viable economically year-round. With the Farnsworth Art Museum and numerous galleries, not to mention wonderful shops and places to eat, we have become an arts destination. What's more, Rockland has managed to nurture its tourist industry without becoming another coastal tourist trap that rolls up the sidewalks at the end of September.

We believe CMCA will come to Rockland, and years from now residents will see real benefits as a result.

There have been a few lumps in the dough, however. The project started with a public relations snafu because it displaced artists already working out of the Winter Street property. That noise seemed quickly forgotten, and we won't dwell on it here.

Some members of the public are also grumbling about this being another nonprofit. While nonprofit entities do good things for our community and citizens, the hard truth is Rockland's mil rate is $19.52 per $1,000 of assessed value. At present there is little a nonprofit can do about this, other than point out how its mission benefits the community.

One way to address this in the future might be to charge nonprofits taxes, keeping them at a lower rate. This could be a very small annual fee, but something to contribute to government services.

Beyond that, the project's greatest challenge is facing the Planning Board.

The Planning Board has to make sure this project meets city standards for both the downtown zone and the Tillson Avenue Overlay Zone.

Board members have pointed out their ultimate decision is not based on whether they like CMCA or believe in its mission. They have to judge it according to the ordinances before them.

So, whatever happens, whatever the vote or the changes that have to be made to the building, remember not to take it out on the Planning Board members, who are simply volunteers helping us out.

The ordinance says in one place: "The Planning Board shall approve an application unless the board finds…a marked absence of architectural elements characteristic of the predominant architecture of structures on Main Street, between Park and Lindsey Streets, constructed prior to 1941."

The ordinance prevents major retail and restaurant chains from coming in with cookie-cutter buildings that do not match or fit the character of our city. We would not want a big box store built on Tillson Avenue, for example, or a standard McDonald's building next to the Strand.

The ordinance was probably not written with a contemporary art museum in mind.

The ordinance also says, "These design standards are intended to require the use of traditional architectural elements, but not to impose any particular architectural style or to foreclose modern design that invokes, but does not mimic, the historic downtown architecture in Rockland."

On the face of it, this seems like an afterthought, tacked on to counter the argument that requiring elements from pre-1941 would be too restrictive. It also seems a bit inconsistent.

City Attorney Kevin Beal has been called upon to write a memorandum of law, giving the Planning Board advice as they interpret the ordinance. Planning board members asked him to do so at their last meeting after discussing these two contrary thoughts.

We would like to see CMCA gain approval, either by successfully modifying their design to meet city standards, or perhaps by receiving a variance of some sort. As we said, this ordinance was put in place to make sure only projects that benefit the city are approved. It was not put in place to block something wonderful and creative.

We would also like to see the ordinance amended so it is a little easier to interpret.

Class act

Ocean State Job Lot has made a strong first impression with its grand opening and ribbon-cutting.

It presented a tractor-trailer load of food to Good Shepherd Food Bank, which will be distributed to local food pantries. It also helped Oceanside High School by donating equipment and apparel for the school's girls lacrosse team.

Welcome neighbor. We hope this generosity and community spirit continues.

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