November 19, 2019
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What Rockland can learn from Belfast about how to make housing more affordable

Micky Bedell | BDN
Micky Bedell | BDN
Downtown Belfast on a late summer evening.

In an attempt to improve access to affordable housing, Rockland officials recently revamped residential zoning regulations much to the ire of some residents who worry the changes will negatively affect the character of neighborhoods.

Four years ago, city officials in Belfast implemented similar changes, such as reducing minimum lot sizes and allowing for detached accessory dwellings on properties. But the impact on neighborhoods has been slow to start, which city planners say is often common with zoning changes.

“To me, it’s sometimes like tempering the expectations. Just because you change the code, it’s unlikely you’re going to see a mushrooming amount of change in a short period of time,” Belfast City Planner Wayne Marshall said.

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Since reducing the minimum lot sizes within the Route 1 bypass ― the denser portion of the city located between Route 1 and the bay ― fewer than 15 new lots have been created, according to Marshall.

The zoning changes also allowed for detached one- or two- bedroom accessory dwellings on properties in any residential zone. While Marshall hoped this would lead to about 15 new units in a 10-year period, in just more than four years, only one or two have popped up.

Leanne Robicheau | BDN
Leanne Robicheau | BDN
Downtown Rockland.

Both cities pursued zoning changes to address a housing shortage that has been affecting a number of midcoast communities in recent years, caused by a combination of slow year-round development and an increase in seasonal or short-term rentals.

“The rental housing stock here is tight, and a lot of things that Belfast is focused on now is how to try and encourage more rental housing,” Marshall said. “The intent [of the 2014 zoning changes] was to perhaps encourage some splits of existing lots to try and have more housing development occur.”

The two cities have comparable populations, with Rockland’s being slightly more than 7,000 and Belfast’s being slightly below. However, Rockland, at only 12 square miles, is less than half the geographic size of Belfast, which is about 34 square miles.

Rockland has been considered “land poor” because of its lack of developable open space. To make matters more cramped, about a third of the city’s square mileage is not developable because of the Oyster River Bog, according to Rockland Code Enforcement Officer John Root.

Alex Acquisto | BDN
Alex Acquisto | BDN
Oyster River Bog off Route 90 in Rockland.

In recent years, Root said most of the recent housing development has occurred in the city’s South End, where homes are being purchased and undergoing major renovations.

Last year, the Rockland City Council formed a housing task force to come up with recommendations for how the city can increase its housing stock. In a 3-1 vote in January, the City Council passed the residential zoning amendments recommended by the task force.

The changes reduce minimum lot size, frontage and setback requirements, as well as minimum square footage requirements for homes in all three of the city’s residential zones. They also allow for detached apartments as a conditional use in each of the zones along with tiny homes.

While proponents of the changes say it will improve access to affordable housing, some residents are concerned it will lead to infill that will harm the character of existing neighborhoods. Last week, a Rockland resident filed a lawsuit against the city, claiming the city council meeting at which the changes won approval was not appropriately advertised and that the changes contradict the city’s comprehensive plan.

[Rockland zoning tweaks could add tiny houses, more affordable homes]

A petition drive to trigger a citywide referendum to overturn the zoning amendments is also being circulated. Petitioners must collect 523 signatures by March 12 to force repeal to referendum.

In Belfast, Marshall said city officials got almost no comments on the changes as they were being considered. To date, he said “there hasn’t been a lot of concern expressed on way or another.”

Root said he remains neutral on the changes, but like Marshall, said that zoning changes don’t start to show their effects overnight. Because Rockland is geographically smaller and has fewer places where people can split lots or add accessory dwellings, he believes the effects will show more slowly than they have in Belfast.

“My feeling is likely the changes would not happen very fast,” Root said. “I just don’t think that you’re going to see everyone and their brother split their lots.”

 



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