Surry proposal would set 3-acre minimum for rural development

Posted Aug. 13, 2012, at 8:36 p.m.

SURRY, Maine — A group charged with revising the town’s out-of-date comprehensive plan is running up against residents who oppose the group’s proposal to increase minimum lot sizes in the town’s sprawling rural zones.

The contentious proposal would increase the minimum lot size in the rural zones from one acre to three. That opposition has been vocal enough that at least one comprehensive plan committee member is concerned the update to the 1991 document wouldn’t pass voter muster in its current form.

The town’s plan expired in 2011, making the town ineligible for many forms of state aid, including Community Development Block Grants, and priority status with the Maine Department of Transportation. Legally, the town’s zoning ordinances carry no weight unless a compliant comprehensive plan is in effect.

Maine law requires communities to adopt comprehensive plans that “prevent sprawl,” said Committee Chairwoman Anita Shaw. Most towns accomplish this by employing a “spoke-and-wheel” plan, with dense village or city centers circled by consecutively sparser zones.

Shaw said there’s a chance the state won’t accept Surry’s comprehensive plan if it doesn’t adequately address sprawl, and that the three-acre minimum in rural zones is a good way to meet that goal.

But residents speaking at a series of public forums on the plan have decried the loss of their property rights if the town adopts the plan, which would limit options for subdivision in the future. There are other concerns as well.

“One resident said, and I hadn’t thought of this before, that if you create a three-acre limit in the rural zone, you’re going to create a big division between the haves and the have-nots,” said committee member Valerie Moon at Monday night’s meeting. “The have-nots will live in the village zone, and the haves would live in the rural area.”

The rural area includes areas such as Newbury Neck and Morgan Bay, where property is more expensive than in other parts of town.

A comprehensive plan update including a four-acre minimum in the rural zones failed to pass voters in 2005, prompting one committee member to question the spoke-and-wheel approach.

“We’ve done four and been shot down,” said Dan Sullivan Jr. “Three also seems to raise eyebrows. Why not try two?”

The proposal would also shrink minimum lot sizes in the town’s village center, from about one acre to a half acre. Ditto for zones created for targeted residential growth.

Committee members are worried about backlash against their plan that, even after one resident survey and three public meetings on the proposed comprehensive plan changes, they’re going to send out another survey asking pointed questions about the controversial issue.

The survey will be sent to all Surry residents, regardless of whether they’re eligible to vote, and will provide several options for rural zoning, from the three-acre minimum to limits of two or one and a half. The mailing will also include a list of pros and cons for each scenario, and maps of proposed changes to zone borders.

Sullivan said the survey is crucial if the committee is to be in touch with what is and isn’t acceptable to the public.

“Our purpose is to get this thing passed,” he said. “If we decide not to go to the public, we’re just spinning our wheels. We need to give people a choice.”

Another committee member, Joe Hermans, was less inclined to try and appease residents who think first of their own interests, and only then consider the long-term needs of the town at large.

“You’re always going to get some negative votes, no matter what we do,” he said. “Our job is to put out a plan we think will bring us the best future for Surry.”

Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.

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