In this file photo from July 2020, a disgruntled resident yelled at Mayor Eric Sanders during a listening session about the creation of affordable housing on Congress Street, inside the Route 1 bypass. Credit: Abigail Curtis / BDN

BELFAST, Maine — With high property prices and a clear scarcity of rental apartments, it’s not a secret that there’s a housing crunch in Belfast.

With a goal of easing that crunch, city officials are working on a wide-scale revamp of current zoning districts to create new opportunities to build more housing, especially multi-family homes.

“The cost of housing and land have really priced out a lot of people from being able to live inside the Route 1 bypass. In some cases, in Belfast itself,” Wayne Marshall of the city’s code and planning office said this week. “What is the reality of Belfast today is that there’s a crying need for more housing.”

The proposed amendments, which will be the focus of a public hearing next week by the Belfast Planning Board, apply to most of the zoning districts located adjacent to or outside the Route 1 bypass. They would not apply to the city’s denser downtown district, which is located inside the bypass.

Some of the changes are based on the city’s comprehensive plan, “with a few twists, as always,” Marshall said. The plan was written about a decade ago and approved by the state this year. 

“One of the twists we are looking at is we’re trying to create additional housing opportunities,” he said. “None of this is identified in the comprehensive plan. The comprehensive plan says, ‘You shouldn’t have any multi-family housing in these rural areas.’ But particularly coming from the planning board, people have said, ‘Jeez, we really need to have more options.’”

This week, the city sent letters about some of those options to people who own property in zones that would be affected by the potential changes. The letters included a map of the proposed changes that some found hard to understand, according to City Councilor Mike Hurley. He said he has heard from a half dozen people, all of whom had questions and concerns about the proposed changes.

“They knew this thing meant something but they didn’t understand what,” Hurley said. “Without a doubt, not one person could understand the map.”

Generally speaking, the amendments would allow property owners in many parts of the city to build more housing units on their lot. In nearly all districts, the changes would allow the construction of a triplex or quadplex building on a 2-acre minimum lot with a septic system.

That could change things quite a bit in places such as Back Belmont Road, where current zoning limits the owner of a 2-acre lot with a septic system to a duplex or single-family house with an attached dwelling unit.

But if the proposed amendments pass, that property owner could build as many as three buildings, with a maximum number of four dwelling units and eight bedrooms. That is intended to provide flexibility, so that the property owner or developer could build combinations that suit their needs, such as a three-bedroom single-family house plus a couple of two-bedroom apartments and a one-bedroom apartment.

“We’re saying you’ve got some options,” Marshall said.

North of Route 3, city officials are proposing that Crocker Road, Marsh Road and Waldo Avenue become their own zoning district, one that they are calling a “residential growth zone.”

“When you look at the comprehensive plan, we think that’s one of the great places to put housing. We’d prefer it going there than some other areas,” Marshall said. “It’s clearly close to job centers and relatively close to downtown. It may mean that people aren’t commuting from 15 miles away to do the things they have to do.”

The proposed zoning changes would allow larger, multi-family structures in that district — even larger than triplex or quadplex buildings — if the property is connected to public sewer, he said.

Still, Marshall doesn’t anticipate that housing would sprout like mushrooms even if the amendments are passed.

“I don’t think that there’s going to be a night and day switch here,” he said. “The big thing on this code is it says you can do more tomorrow.”

He believes the changes would just allow for more possibilities going forward, and also feels that they’re in line with the city’s long-held approach to development.

“What Belfast has pretty much allowed is far-flung development pretty much throughout the rural area,” he said. “Sometimes people have a false sense of rural [feeling]…because something hasn’t happened on the lot next to them. But it could happen.”

The Belfast Planning Board public hearing will be held at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 6. It will be conducted online using Zoom and can be streamed on the city website at www.cityofbelfast.org. Those who wish to comment can participate via Zoom or submit comments or questions to the planning department by noon on Oct. 6.