As community changes, Houlton maps out new blueprint

Posted Feb. 26, 2014, at 4:02 p.m.

HOULTON, Maine — Responding to substantial changes in the residential, agricultural and business landscape of the community over the past few decades, the planning board has been working diligently for several years to revise the town’s zoning ordinances.

The process has been ongoing since 2004 in order to edit existing ordinances and establish guidelines for newer mandates. There have only been minor revisions to the ordinances since the 1960s.

Don Keiser, chairman of the planning board, was present at a meeting Monday night to update the town council on the process. He specifically concentrated on updates being made to the residential business zone-nonconforming use of the zoning ordinance.

Keiser spoke about a section of the RB zone along North Street that runs from Smyrna Street to North Court, which is just before McDonald’s restaurant. After that, the zone becomes a business district.

He told councilors that the group was struggling with revising the ordinances for that section of the RB zone, as he said it sometimes contained confusing ordinances that didn’t make clear what kind of structures, signs and businesses were allowed there.

“It is hard to apply the existing ordinances,” he explained. “And then you get anger from some because you let some people do something but not others. That has created hard feelings. So we have just been going section by section through these and really working to find the intent of the ordinances.”

He added that the panel had been working to clarify and simplify the ordinances.

“We are looking for more consistency,” he added.

In the 1960s, the last time the ordinances were revised, North Street was not as developed as it is now. Businesses were mainly located in Market Square in downtown Houlton. In the past 15 years, however, a shift has occurred, with a huge build up of businesses along North Street. It is now home to banks, restaurants, grocery and convenience stores, hotels and more.

Councilor Sue Tortello is also a member of the planning board, and acknowledged that the RB zone has been a challenge. She said that she found some of the mandates in that zone particularly perplexing, such as the edict that businesses cannot have a lighted open sign or a circular driveway.

“Why not?” she asked during the meeting. “And because those things have been allowed through the years, it has made people angry. It puts us in a real pickle. We want to make it a lot more fair and we don’t want to discourage businesses from settling here.”

Town Manager Gene Conlogue said Wednesday that he agreed with the work that the planning board was doing.

“It is important that the ordinances by applied equally and fairly so that everyone is treated the same and dealt with the same,” he said. “We are looking for that consistency factor.”

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