Newcastle voters defeated a proposed amendment to the town’s core zoning code that would have broadened requirements for project review by the planning board at a special town meeting Monday, Dec. 11.
The three-question warrant was expected to “uncontroversial” by town officials but ran close to an hour with divided votes on all items, the final of which failed. The amendments it contained were largely designed to update the town’s governance in line with the state and meet goals set in the comprehensive plan, background materials said.
In response to audience question, officials said they are addressing changes to the code and ordinances in pieces through regular small-item special town meetings to fix issues quickly and with room for public discussion.
“We’re trying to get things done as they need to get done,” select board Vice Chair Joel Lind said.
After David Levesque was elected as moderator, residents repealed the purchasing and bid ordinance 16-9 to be replaced with a policy approved by the select board in August. According to Town Manager Kevin Sutherland, the ordinance dates from before Newcastle moved to the town manager form of government in 2020. He hopes the town will switch to policies in place of ordinances for administrative subjects where state law allows it.
The new policy sets requirements for purchases and bids at different cost thresholds. In response to audience question, Sutherland said they will estimate costs by talking with contractors before pursuing bids. Items over $50,000 will go out to advertised bid except for maintenance contracts.
Lind said that in the tight market of recent years, the board has lost out on contractor availability for projects under $15,000 with the existing ordinance because of the time and preparation it requires for lower-cost bid packages.
“We’re making up the difference in the process in where things are right now,” he said.
Two amendments to the core zoning code followed, one approved by voters and the other denied, which were intended to work on action items from the town’s comprehensive plan, according to Sutherland.
The approved amendment reduced the minimum right-of-way for new insular lots, or those not on a road, from 50 feet to 24 feet.
Town Planner Michael Martone said this change allows denser development in the village zone to fit the character of downtown. The original 50-foot requirement would fit five lanes of traffic, he said, which takes up land and could lead to “sprawling” development.
Newcastle in particular has a number of long, thin lots, he said, which can often only be developed by creating insular lots which have sometimes not been possible due to the existing requirements.
Rights-of-way are separate from the width requirements for roads, driveways, and entrances, which are set by their own ordinance.
“We don’t want people telling us to reduce the burden when we don’t want to,” resident Kevin Voigt said.
Lind responded the amendment would not require any landowners to change their current rights of way.
The amendment passed 14-10.
The final amendment considered at the meeting would have changed the large project plan section of the zoning code to require planning board review of any project creating 18 or more units or 20 or more parking spaces.
An adjustment to the subdivision section under the same warrant article would have required planning board review for subdivisions of one lot into three or more using virtual lot lines. Virtual lot lines are less formal divisions allowing new buildings on existing lots, according to Martone, and the change would have held these landowners to the same standard of review as deeded lot subdivisions.
Asked by residents about the benefit of the changes, Lind and Martone said the changes would bring the code into closer alignment with the state’s processes.
Some of the public discussion focused on the meaning and function of parts of the core zoning code, including the definitions of virtual lot lines and insular lots. Other audience questions focused on a proposed 16-unit affordable housing development at 10 Mills Road which has drawn ire from neighbors during public comment at recent municipal meetings.
Sutherland said that project would not be subject to any new ordinance or code change because its plan has already been submitted and approved by the code enforcement officer, but the proposed amendment would not have affected the project regardless.
“This doesn’t change the definitions, only the process of administration,” Martone said.
The amendment failed 11-13.
At the regular select board meeting immediately following, town officials and residents agreed that the core zoning code and its amendments were confusing, dense subjects.
“I’ve been doing this for almost nine years now, and there is a reoccurring theme that when we bring things to the public, sometimes it’s construed that there’s a master plan that we’ve been trying to hatch,” said Lind, speaking as a citizen during public comment. “It doesn’t mean that we always have the right ideas, but we always are all open to explaining and understanding. That’s the kind of back-and-forth dialogue that’s really helpful. Just trying to educate (about) these issues, and some of these issues are tricky to explain. Coming in with an open mind to gain understanding of what we’re doing is an important thing.”
Newcastle Planning Board Chair Ben Frey expressed concern that the core zoning code now has “a gaping hole” which “someone will take advantage of.”
“Unfortunately, I feel like there was a misunderstanding and a classic example of cutting off your nose to spite your face,” he said. “We will receive an application that attempts to take advantage of something that will result in exactly the type of development those here (tonight) were not in favor of.”
Frey said he expects the planning board to prioritize a new version for voters to evaluate again.
Materials from the meeting are available at newcastlemaine.us.