SURRY, Maine — After months of debate, a thorny issue that revealed possible class divides in Surry may have finally been resolved at Monday night’s meeting of the Comprehensive Plan Committee.
The committee has been working for nearly a year to revise the town’s comprehensive plan, which expired in 2011. But the contentious question of minimum lot sizes threatened to derail the whole endeavor, as it did in 2005.
That year, the proposal would have established a four-acre minimum lot size in rural areas. The idea was to protect the “rural feel” of the town, but residents soundly rejected the proposal.
Determined not to see a repeat of that failure, the 10-member committee resolved to come to a consensus about minimum lot size before sending the question to voters at a special town meeting.
In August, a proposal was floated to establish three-acre minimum lot sizes in the rural zone, but that plan rankled some members of the committee and residents, who thought it would establish dividing lines in Surry, with wealthier families living on large rural plots and poor families stuck near the highway.
A poll completed in January of every taxpayer in Surry showed that while most landowners “want to retain the small town/village feel of Surry,” residents were split on minimum lot sizes. A plurality of landowners who live in Surry all year said a one-acre minimum — as exists today — would be the best option. But taxpayers who live in Surry only seasonally said two-acres was best.
One concern, voiced by committee members Jean and Valerie Moon, was that people who have lived in rural areas like Newbury Neck and Morgan Bay for generations, would not be able to deed land to their families if they had only small plots.
But a proposed compromise from member Joe Stockbridge on Monday won the support of the entire committee, paving the way for a deal that may be palatable to residents.
The deal would establish a two-acre minimum in the rural zone, with the exception that landowners could deed a portion of their land as small as one acre to family members. The grantee, however, would have to hold the smaller property for five years before they could sell it.
David Hollenburg, the committee’s chairman, said he’d have to run the proposal by Maine Municipal Association to ensure its legality, but said he was hopeful it would pass legal scrutiny.
“I think we can say we’ve finally put this issue to bed,” he said after the meeting.
Another option on the table is to hold two votes on the comprehensive plan: One with a two-acre minimum lot size and, if that fails to pass, one with a one-acre minimum lot size. Hollenburg said that plan would also have to be vetted by lawyers.
Valerie Moon, one of the fiercest opponents of large minimum lot sizes, said she was happy with the compromise, but that she ultimately would still not support the comprehensive plan.
Moon said Surry is still too unfriendly to development. Developers like to build subdivisions of at least 14 lots, she said, and Surry’s rules make that impossible.
“In the rural zone, where development is still possible, we have a private road length limit of 1,000 feet and a minimum frontage requirement of 250 feet,” she said. “That limits the amount of subdivision you can have and limits development.”
Moon said she valued the rural feel of the town, but some development would be necessary to maintain the tax base and keep the mil rate low.
That view was not shared by most committee members. One, Ted Fletcher, said the comprehensive plan should be about preserving Surry’s character, not ensuring a tax base.
“Do we really want real estate taxes to drive this document? No,” he said in response to Moon.
Hollenburg said the Comprehensive Plan would likely not be ready in time for the annual Town Meeting in April, and that a Special Town Meeting would be called to vote on the Comprehensive Plan.
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.