November 14, 2018
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Nearly 2,300 more homes could be built in York River watershed, study finds

YORK, Maine — Despite all the conserved land in the upper reaches of the York River, and the fact the area near the mouth of the river is already densely settled, there’s still plenty of potential for housing development in the river watershed areas of York, Kittery, Eliot and South Berwick.

In fact, according to a recently completed analysis by a GIS — geographic information system — mapping consultant, there could be as many as 2,295 potential new buildings in the watershed. That’s nearly as many as the 3,037 existing buildings in the four-town watershed today. The analysis is the last of several major studies commissioned by the York River Study Committee as it prepares to seek voter approval this fall to accept the river as a federal Wild and Scenic Partnership River.

Consultant Judy Colby-George of Spatial Alternatives in Yarmouth was quick to caution that her analysis of potential build-out development is based on assumptions in addition to objective data from all four towns. As such, the 2,295 number should be taken with a grain of salt.

“We tried to be as accurate as we can,” Colby-George said. “We’ve spent a lot of time on this, but it’s a model, and I tend to say all models are wrong but some models are useful. We’ve made assumptions, we’ve had to generalize things, we had four towns’ zoning ordinances. You can’t model intricacy in each town. The purpose is to help us understand what might happen given current zoning regimes.”

When she looked at development potential, she gathered information available from all four towns’ assessing records about each parcel in the watershed area, cross-referenced that with zoning regulations as to how many buildings would be allowed on the parcel, and then removed wetlands from the equation.

“Any parcel that had no building was presumed to be developable,” she said. “Any parcel that had a building but was more than twice the allowable lot size, we presumed it could be split.”

In addition, whatever open space was left she calculated at 85 percent usable land, to take into account impervious surfaces from the house and from a driveway. She also took into consideration buffers around known ponds and streams.

But each parcel could be mitigated by a number of factors. For instance, she said, shoreland zoning regulations in all four towns were “hard to model” because the formulas can be complex. In addition, what she provided was a snapshot of the situation as it exists today. For instance, Kittery has one-acre zoning in its watershed area, while York has two-acre zoning in the western part of town. But if Kittery changed its ordinance, that would reduce the number of buildable lots.

Colby-George said she also did a “quick analysis” of how the overall analysis would change if all four towns created conservation subdivision requirements, which preserves 40 to 70 percent of buildable land. For example, she said, there are 35 miles of road in the watershed. If there was a complete build-out, 36 additional road miles would be created, she said. However, if there were conservation subdivision requirement, that number would be reduced to 18 miles.

Colby-George presented her findings at a recent meeting of the York River Study Committee, when members discussed possible ways to use the information, along with information from other studies, as they look to place measures on the November ballot in all four towns.

Paul Schumacher, of the Southern Maine Planning and Development Commission, suggested the committee present the watershed as a whole and not town by town, “to create the sense of, ‘We’re all in this together,’” he said. “It makes sense to view it as a whole and the impacts as a whole. Then you can dive down if you want to.”

He suggested the committee think about proposing a watershed overlay district for all four towns. “Should there be a goal to have a York River District, so that there would be an opportunity over time to have some consistency? If you could get it in place to start, it would be a lot earlier to insert things as you went along. You’re always going to have to deal with all four towns, but some structure could be helpful.”

But committee member Jean Demetracopoulos of South Berwick reminded the group that the immediate goal has to be getting support in all four towns for the November ballot initiative to designate the York River as part of the Wild and Scenic Partnership program.

“We may get lost in the weeds if we have a four-town overlay district,” she said. “I don’t want that to be a straw. Let’s try to keep our eyes on the first goal, which is designation. I could see the overlay district as a long-term goal, but I don’t want to spend a whole lot of time on it at this point.”

Member Cindy Donnell of York said if the river is designated, there will likely be more federal funds to implement the project.

According to Jennifer Hunter, coordinator for the committee, the goal is to have a proposed management plan completed in June, in time for the series of public hearings before various boards that will be necessary to put it before voters in November.

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