PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — City planners are continuing to examine changes to downtown zoning regulations that could result in a ban on first-floor apartments in the core business area.
In May, councilors adopted a 180-day moratorium on the creation of new dwelling units with street frontage on the first floors of buildings within a zone in the downtown bounded on the north by Blake Street and on the south by Maple Street.
That moratorium was scheduled to end in October but was extended until Jan. 20, 2011, during the City Council’s Aug. 2 meeting, City Planner Jamie Francomano said Tuesday. The extension was granted to give planners more time to consider zoning changes.
The issue was brought to the council after planning board members and staff heard complaints about negative effects associated with first-floor office and retail spaces being converted to apartments downtown. Some complaints had to do with the behavior of certain tenants, who were “receiving guests or otherwise spending private time on the public sidewalks in front of their units,” according to Francomano.
Others expressed fear that allowing more vacant storefronts to be turned into apartments would leave less space for businesses to move into the area.
At this point, the section in question is a rural business zone. According to city documents, regulations for the zone allow one- and two-family residential uses for the properties in that area, but the rules make no distinction between the ground-floor potential storefront area and the rest of the building.
The city’s planning board has discussed the issue in detail, and the city has gathered public comment on the situation. During a public meeting in May, the majority of the attendees were in favor of prohibiting or restricting first-floor apartments, according to Francomano.
“The positive impact of new businesses moving into the downtown is noticeable,” he said Tuesday. “We’ve had several new businesses move into the downtown in the past few years. But if it is a conversion to an apartment in the downtown, it is also noticeable. I think that people recognize that we need to create a good mix of retail, residential and business sections in that area.”
Francomano noted that some towns across Maine, including Biddeford, Camden, Caribou and Eastport, have found success in balancing residential and retail in their downtowns by carving out a section of their downtown areas and prohibiting first-floor dwelling units facing any public ways in that core section.
Francomano said officials who are involved with the situation in Presque Isle have realized that the current downtown zoning requirements need to change. More time was needed to consider what changes need to be made, he said, which is why planners asked that the moratorium be extended. The revised date will give city officials more time to complete the draft language of proposed regulations and schedule required public hearings.
“When we started looking at this, we realized that the zoning regulations in the downtown are too strict in some ways,” he said. “We would like to look at relaxing setback and parking requirements. We feel that this would give back development potential to the downtown should the council decide to restrict first-floor apartments.”
With regulation changes, he explained, the downtown could be positioned to welcome more businesses and foot traffic even if it no longer is able to house as many apartment dwellers.
Francomano said he feels that relaxing some of the requirements will be beneficial to the future of the downtown.
“The mixed-use downtown of our grandparents’ generation is back in fashion,” he said Tuesday. “Such a downtown had businesses on the first floor and apartments on the second floor, and a good mix of stores and restaurants and office space. Bringing back that type of downtown will go a long way towards extending the life of the downtown past the typical eight hours that we are seeing right now.”