June 25, 2018
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Castine to vote on ordinance changes to spur affordable housing

By Mario Moretto, BDN Staff

CASTINE, Maine — Residents here will vote Nov. 6 on two new ordinance packages aimed in part at facilitating the development of affordable housing.

The two referendums — Questions 1 and 2 — ask voters to enact new subdivision and zoning ordinances for the town. Many of the changes from the current documents are cosmetic and semantic, aimed at clearing up cumbersome language and bringing the town’s ordinances into line with state rules.

But other provisions, which have drawn some criticism from residents, according to Town Manager Dale Abernethy, ease zoning regulations on minimum lot sizes for affordable housing developments. The subdivision ordinance also gives a 25 percent bonus to the number of lots that can be created via subdivision for affordable housing clusters.

The changes address one of the core goals for Castine’s future, Abernethy said. Like other small, coastal towns, property values are high, he said. The high cost of living and the lack of employment opportunities mean Castine has a hard time attracting young, working families, he said.

“Why would they pay some given price for a house and face a 35-mile commute to Bangor [for work]?” Abernethy asked.

As Castine ages, Abernethy said, and more longtime residents leave the town or move in with children, most houses are bought by out-of-state residents who turn the Castine homes into summer residences. Abernethy said two of the three neighboring houses at his first home in town, on Court Street, have been bought by families from New York and Pennsylvania.

“That’s fewer able-bodied volunteers for our fire department,” he said. “It’s fewer kids on our little school here.”

That’s where the zoning changes come in. Lowering housing costs could entice young families with children to Castine, Abernethy said. The change that would have the biggest impact involves minimum lot size calculation. A single-family home lot in Castine must be at least two acres. Usually, undevelopable wetland acreage cannot count toward this requirement. So a two-acre lot with one acre of wetland doesn’t meet the requirement.

The new zoning rules would lift that restriction, allowing affordable housing lots to include wetland toward its minimum lot size requirement. So the same two-acre, half wetland, lot above would be acceptable for lower-cost homes.

A change to the subdivision ordinance would give affordable-housing subdivisions a 25 percent boost in the number of units that could be placed in cluster developments. Where subdivision would allow for 4 units on a subdivided 8-acre lot — one each on half-acre division, with the remaining six acres undeveloped and preserved — affordable housing would get a bonus fifth unit.

The provisions have their share of detractors, Abernethy said. In town meetings on the referendums, some residents said they didn’t want the affordable housing incentives in the ordinances, he said.

Selectman Constantino “Gus” Basile shares those residents’ concerns, and voted against sending the ordinances to referendum.

“I hope it doesn’t pass,” he said Wednesday.

Basile said no one is opposed to affordable housing, but people are upset about manipulating lot-size requirements. Wetlands are protected to prevent development, he said. Changing the rules for affordable housing defeats that purpose, he said. Combined with the cluster benefit, he said, it could defeat the purpose of conservation.

“If you had 50 acres of land, and 40 of it is wetland, [these rules] say you could build 25 half-acre lots on the last 10 acres,” he said.

Basile said he’s also opposed to trying to change so much in a single vote. The ordinances should have been considered line by line in a Town Meeting, he said. That way, the most people could be involved. He also thinks summer residents’ concerns should be heard, even if they can’t vote.

“There are a lot of people upset about a lot of this,” he said. “They don’t feel they were part of the process.”

Many are concerned that the new rules could mean an end to Castine as a quiet, rural community.

“We live in a rural area,” Basile said. Residents “want to keep it rural. They purchased properties to keep it rural. If this thing happens, it’ll be more like a suburban area.”

Abernethy said he doesn’t expect a rush on development, even with the relaxed restrictions.

“I’ve worked for this town for 12 years. In that time, we’ve had two subdivision applications,” he said.

Facilitating the development of affordable housing is one side of attracting young families to Castine for the long-term, Abernethy said. The other side is economic development. The town has hired a part-time economic development director, and had originally included in the proposed zoning ordinance language to allow limited commercial and retail development in residential areas.

But at public meetings, selectmen received strong pushback from residents who said they didn’t want commercial development in their neighborhoods, Abernethy said, and selectmen unilaterally removed the language from the ordinance.

Abernethy said the question of development will likely be brought up again at the annual town meeting in May. At its heart, he said, the attitude toward commercial development will be determined along the vision residents have for their town.

“It depends on what Castine wants to be,” Abernethy said. “People support economic development, but they don’t want it down the street from them.”

Other language in the ordinance revisions removes the need for permits to conduct routine house maintenance, such as roof work, and extends the “education zone” encompassing Maine Maritime Academy to include all the academy’s property up to streets.

Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.

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