How rural is rural? Cumberland plan to reduce minimum lot sizes attracts criticism

A map provided by the town of Cumberland shows the existing Rural Residential 1 (in blue) and 2 (in yellow) zones. The green areas show regions of open space, tree growth or town-owned properties. A proposed update to the town's Comprehensive Plan recommends the two RR zones be merged, so that both allow minimum lots of two acres, as permitted in RR2. RR1 allows minimum lots of four acres.
The Forecaster
A map provided by the town of Cumberland shows the existing Rural Residential 1 (in blue) and 2 (in yellow) zones. The green areas show regions of open space, tree growth or town-owned properties. A proposed update to the town's Comprehensive Plan recommends the two RR zones be merged, so that both allow minimum lots of two acres, as permitted in RR2. RR1 allows minimum lots of four acres.
Posted Dec. 24, 2013, at 10:57 a.m.
Last modified Dec. 25, 2013, at 7:21 p.m.

CUMBERLAND, Maine — A proposed Comprehensive Plan update, criticized by some residents who are concerned about the effect on the town’s “rural lifestyle,” could go to a Town Council vote Jan. 27.

The panel and public weighed in on the matter for about two hours Monday, six days after the Planning Board tabled consideration of the update. The board is due to take up the matter again next month, before the council’s consideration.

The Comprehensive Plan Update Committee recommends in part that the 4-acre housing lot minimum in the Rural Residential 1 zone be reduced to the 2-acre minimum already specified in the Rural Residential 2 zone, and that the zones be merged.

That suggestion is one that has attracted particular concern from some residents.

“The Comprehensive Plan is really meant to target growth in the new growth areas … and to identify areas that you want to preserve as the non-developed areas,” Chris Franklin of Range Road told the Town Council. “If we rezone this all to two acres, we’re taking away one of the few tools the town has to … target growth to certain areas, and disincentivize growth in other areas.”

Town Planner Carla Nixon has said some residents in the western part of town, living in the RR1 zone, asked town officials to consider the reduction, since residents nearby have the 2-acre minimum.

While a groundwater study triggered the need to spread out residences, leading to the 4-acre minimum, improved septic systems in more recent years have made that issue moot, she said in August.

“It’s an equity issue,” Nixon, who was unable to attend Monday’s meeting, said earlier this month. “We don’t want to have more growth, per se; it’s just that when we looked at why are some parts of town two acres, and some four acres, we just didn’t really see anything to hang our hats on for that. And the area that we’re looking at … is not a huge area. When you look at just the number of parcels that actually would be affected, it’s very few.”

But Franklin argued that those who purchased lots with the intention to subdivide them would buy property in a zone with more flexibility — a 2-acre minimum instead of four.

“I understand, if you were already living in the area, and the town said ‘you no longer have two-acre zoning, now you have four-acre zoning,’ that would be something that would be hard to the residents to take, and that would be illegal; you couldn’t do that,” he said. “But when people bought these lots, they knew it was four-acre zoning.”

Concerning the different zoning, resident Bob Waterhouse said, “logic tells me that it doesn’t make any real sense, other than the idea of keeping space. … It should fall to the powers that be, the Planning Board and the Town Council, to be sure that the rural character of the town is maintained as much as possible. … I don’t think we’re going to ruin Cumberland if this [zoning change] occurs.”

Jim Guidi of Hedgerow Drive, who has served on the update committee, noted that with several Range Road residents concerned about the change, “maybe we should try to consider what they’re saying a little more heavily.”

According to town documents, RR2 contains more than 6,300 acres, with about 1,100 lots, while RR1 has 4,200 acres, with about 470 lots. Thirty-five open-space, tree-growth or town-owned parcels are in RR1.

Resident Sarah Russell noted that the Comprehensive Plan was “a massive undertaking,” involving a survey of the town.

“This is a big change to that plan … and I would love to see a bigger conversation with the town about this change,” she said.

The update stems in part from many changes related to land use, affordable housing and infrastructure in the past four years, takes into account 2010 census data, and is meant to ensure current zoning matches current needs, according to the Comprehensive Plan Update Committee.

Town Council Chairman Bill Stiles noted that if the updates are implemented through an ordinance change, the ordinance would be subject to being overturned by a voter referendum.

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