Boothbay Harbor boards hold ordinance workshop

Downtown business district and housing issues take priority
Tue, 12/05/2023 - 10:45am

    Members of the selectboard and planning board came together Nov. 30 for a workshop months in the making to discuss the future of several Boothbay Harbor ordinances. Participants reviewed issues including housing, mixed-use buildings, and how space is used in the downtown business district as they prepare for the May town meeting.  

    The workshop came about after several ordinance changes were brought forth before the last town meeting but not moved forward. Chair Tom Churchill said the planning board has been working on each of the ordinances on the agenda for some time because they were in conflict with other ordinances or with the town’s 2015 comprehensive plan. He thanked the selectboard for meeting and asked both boards to consider the bigger picture.  

    “The first thing we always asked if an ordinance needs to be changed is why? What’s the problem the ordinance is creating? Clearly any change to ordinances has to start with answering that question: why are we changing the ordinances?"  

    In addition to the two boards, Lincoln County Planner Emily Rabbe was there to provide perspective. Because the meeting was a workshop, no decisions were made.  

    Much of the discussion was on housing. The boards talked about reducing the residential setback along parts of Route 27 to encourage housing development. Currently, the residential setback for some areas is 300 feet, while commercial setbacks are 60 feet. Both boards generally agreed more residential units in town would be a good thing and a 75-foot residential setback may be a way to incentivize that.  

    One reason for encouraging development along Route 27 is because the comprehensive plan discourages new residential uses in the downtown area. There is concern that residential units, which could go in many places, could jeopardize the downtown area. However, many of the buildings in the downtown business district are nonconforming and already require ordinance changes, according to board members. The group discussed discouraging residential units on the ground floor of business district buildings and continuing to allow housing above.

    Members from both boards acknowledged the town’s housing shortage and benefit of mixed-use buildings. The primary concern was the impact residential units could have on the business district as an economic driver.   

    “I believe in the vitality of the downtown business area and the draw of what the downtown area of Boothbay (Harbor) is. What helps that is good,” said Selectman Ken Rayle. He said he was conflicted. And he went on to say the issue could impact property values significantly and he was not sure if this is worth taking on.  

    Rabbe later told the Register Boothbay Harbor is not alone in this issue. She said every town in coastal Maine with a seasonal population is struggling to balance housing with economy; many are trying to find a balance so they do not feel like ghost towns in the off season.

    “It's a narrow tightrope that you're trying to walk where you want to accommodate the year-round population and make sure that there is housing available for them and not forcing them out because it becomes too expensive. But you also recognize that there is a significant economic impact with (seasonal) tourism,” she said. 

    Rabbe commended the boards for having the conversations and said there were benefits to encouraging mixed use. She said towns in Maine and across the country want housing, employment and shopping to be in close proximity. For people who do not want to drive, or have difficulty driving, she said having everything within a short distance is especially beneficial.   

    “It creates a nicer sense of place to live,” she said. “To be able to have that walkability and that sense of community is important to a lot of people who are looking for that way of life. And I think it also makes sense from an economic point of view because you have your retail on the first floor, and that space upstairs might be used for storage or maybe it's a small office, but to have people living above it is fantastic.”  

    Board members also discussed side yard setbacks and multi-use spaces downtown. Overall, they agreed both commercial and residential buildings should be allowed to maximize their lot use as long as fire protection and safety measures are met. In addition, they reviewed ordinances stipulating businesses must have 2,000 of square feet per use. According to board members, this puts most downtown businesses in violation of code. Rabbe said not many other towns have land use area tied to the number of uses on a property.   

    The boards discussed eliminating or minimizing the square footage requirement to allow more uses or smaller businesses such as in Damariscotta or Kennebunkport. They set up a subcommittee to continue the discussion made up of selectmen Rayle and Michael Tomko and planning board members Churchill and Ronald Cohen.   

    “We don’t see at this point why there should be a limit on uses,” said Churchill.

    Rayle added later, “You don’t need 2,000 square feet to have a successful store.”  

    In other business, the board discussed ordinance issues including noise and light ordinances, parking standards, whether the board of appeals can grant variances for dimensional standards and several wording concerns in current ordinance language.