The Bremen Board of Selectmen and other town officials say a new land use ordinance would fix issues with the town’s present rules, but opponents argue that the new ordinance would create new problems.
Bremen held the second of two public hearings on a proposed land use ordinance the evening of Thursday, March 16.
The hearings, the first of which was held March 2, were held to discuss the combination of the existing minimum lot size ordinance, building permit ordinance, and industrial site plan review ordinance into one new ordinance.
The Bremen Planning Board voted to support the ordinance with two abstentions. Voters will decide whether to adopt the ordinance in a referendum coinciding with municipal elections Saturday, April 1. The polls will be open at the town center from 8 a.m. to noon.
At the start of the final public hearing, planning board Chair Walter Voskian gave some background on the ordinance review process, explaining the development of the ordinance by the ordinance review committee and what the next step for the town is.
Voskian said the ordinance review process started in early 2015 with former planning board Chair Steve Barnes.
In mid-2016 the town hired Eric Gallant, a consultant with experience working on ordinances in Maine towns, including Friendship, to assist an ordinance review committee made up of himself, Selectman Wendy Pieh, and Harold Schramm, a member of the Bremen Budget Committee.
Voskian said a main goal of the committee, which also worked with the town attorney, was to adapt ordinances to better suit the municipality, while removing inconsistencies, contradictions, and gaps in the existing ordinances.
“We met many times in 2016, produced a number of drafts, lots of ink and paper, but most importantly, a lot of thought went into this process,” Voskian said.
Voskian said a focus on definitions was a significant part of the ordinance review committee’s work.
“Clear definitions are an attempt to inject more precision into the process. It increases chances for well-founded findings,” Voskian said.
He said the ordinance replaces dense text with clear tables in an effort to make the ordinance user-friendly.
Voskian said the ordinance includes a new category for low-impact businesses.
He said the existing ordinances distinguish only between “home use” businesses and commercial industrial, whereas the draft ordinance’s low-impact designation fits between the two categories.
He said the ordinance clarifies the division of labor between the code enforcement officer and the planning board, while also clarifying performance standards relevant to site plan reviews.
Voskian said the next step, should the ordinance pass muster at town meeting, would be for the ordinance review committee to work on the appeals board and shoreland zone ordinances.
Selectman Wendy Pieh expressed her support for the land use ordinance and said the ordinance review committee had gone through the existing ordinances word by word as it worked to develop the new ordinance.
Pieh said the intention was to take away comments from the two public hearings on the matter and develop amendments to the ordinance, but since the ordinance is already on the ballot, the town cannot amend it prior to the vote.
Pieh said work would continue on the ordinance, if it passes, after the vote.
“We pledge to work on it if it passes. We will go back and look at things so we can improve the new ordinance and make it better,” Pieh said.
Speaking at a selectmen’s meeting immediately prior to the public hearing, Pieh expressed support for the new ordinance. She said she wants to spread the word about the upcoming vote and the selectmen’s support for the ordinance.
Dick Koubek, a resident and former member of the planning board, raised concerns about the combination of three ordinances into one.
Koubek said separate ordinances can help citizens look up the regulations pertinent to a situation.
“A title gives you a pretty fair idea of where to start and what the content is,” Koubek said.
Citing organizational issues with the new ordinance, Koubek cautioned about passing the ordinance in a town vote before fully ironing out the issues.
“I think it’s premature to pass this. Rather than put something out that will confuse people, we ought to have some consensus on clarity,” Koubek said.
“I applaud all the effort that was put in, but passing it at this point is premature,” Koubek said.
Resident Mary Sue Weeks suggested adding two members of the public to the ordinance review committee.
“I know it would slow things down, but it wouldn’t hurt to have input from people,” Weeks said.
Resident Mary Berger expressed concern that suggested amendments would not be made to the ordinance if it passes April 1.
“If we just pass it, we have a history of never changing something once it has passed,” Berger said.
Resident David Koubek, Dick Koubek’s son, raised similar concerns.
“It’s too early to vote on this. There are way too many issues and no guarantees we will go back anytime soon and amend this thing,” he said.
David Koubek said the Bremen Appeals Board is bound by the town’s ordinances and urged caution.
“I think it’s naive to expect if we just pass it everything will be OK,” he said.
In response to these concerns, Pieh said the town would take an active approach to amendments.
“I’m making a commitment. I’m listening to what people are saying and we are going to go back through this. We need to do that and this is where we are starting,” Pieh said.
Selectman Hank Nevins said the town has needed to address its ordinances for years, with the selectmen asking for action as far back as 2008.
He said a lot of work has been put in by members of the planning board and ordinance review committee and urged residents to support the ordinance.
“Some changes are going to have to be made, but this gives us a base, a place to start. We promise to make changes and I support this. For years nothing was done and this is the best planning board we have ever had,” Nevins said.
Pieh said a reason she felt the town needed to address land use in a timely manner was the detrimental nature of the existing commercial industrial ordinance.
“The commercial industrial ordinance is crippling this town. It is making this town suffer,” Pieh said.
Pieh said the commercial industrial ordinance was originally designed to keep big businesses out of town, but has caught up small businesses too, including a boat-building workshop, a farmer’s greenhouse, and an individual making lobster traps.
“When the ordinance started to get enforced, it scooped small businesses up and people couldn’t do what they wanted to in town. It wasn’t meant to do that,” Pieh said.
Pieh said the past problems with the commercial industrial ordinance are one reason the new ordinance features a three-tier system with low-impact business covering the area between home occupation and commercial industrial.
Voskian emphasized the challenges involved with the town’s existing ordinances.
“It is extremely difficult to distinguish inconsistencies and redundancies in the ordinances. Clearly there are things to address. (The new ordinance is) not going to go on the shelf and be left to sit there after the vote,” Voskian said.
The proposed ordinance is available at the town office and at bremenmaine.org.
Pieh said an ordinance review committee meeting has been scheduled for 10 a.m., Thursday, April 6 to discuss the results of the vote at town meeting.