Newcastle residents are invited to provide feedback on the first draft of the town’s new comprehensive plan and land use code during a public forum at Lincoln Academy’s Cable-Burns Applied Technology and Engineering Center at 7 p.m., Tuesday, April 11.
The discussion will also give the Newcastle Local Planning Committee the opportunity to present its progress in reviewing the draft documents, according to committee Co-chair Ben Frey.
The committee, which has been at work for more than two years, hosted a weekend of events, focus groups, and workshops last spring to solicit input from residents about what they want to see in the new planning documents.
Consultants from Maine Design Workshop, the firm responsible for drafting the new comprehensive plan and land use code, took the ideas discussed during the weekend of events to write the new documents, which were presented in December 2016.
The draft comprehensive plan outlines six “big ideas,” which include guiding principles, strategies, and a vision for Newcastle’s future.
The goals include better utilizing Main Street, being a lifelong community, celebrating local heritage, developing eco-adventures, and increasing innovation, entrepreneurship, and business in Newcastle.
The new land use code is a character-based code, a type of form-based code that divides a municipality into districts based on characteristics. The intent is to preserve, maintain, enhance, or transition the character of each district, Frey said.
In the draft code, Newcastle is divided into character districts that include conservation, rural, countryside residential, village residential, village neighborhood, and village center. There are also special districts, including the highway commercial district and the campus special district.
The zoning map included in the draft separates the districts by lots, so that no parcel is divided between character districts.
Each district has different allowances regarding the types of buildings, additions, and accessory structures that can be built.
The draft code also calls for the creation of a new position called the development administrator, which would be appointed by the Newcastle Board of Selectmen. The development administrator would review project plans and changes to site plans.
No decision has been made as to whether the position would be part-time or full-time, or whether a current town employee would take on the responsibilities of the development administrator, Frey said.
Larger, more complicated projects and requests for variances would still be reviewed by the Newcastle Planning Board or the code enforcement officer, Frey said.
In the four months since the draft documents were posted online, the Newcastle Local Planning Committee has been meeting “almost every week” to review the documents, Frey said.
“We’ve spent a lot of time just going over both documents and making revisions,” Frey said. “We have a very large, dedicated committee, and we’ve had excellent conversations about both the comp plan and the code.”
During its meetings, the committee has often been joined by residents who wish to give input on specific sections of both documents, particularly the land use code, Frey said.
“Initially, there was a healthy amount of feedback. Most of it was mixed, as these things are,” Frey said. “With the code, though, it represents a fundamentally different way of doing an ordinance from what we’ve had. In the beginning, it’s always going to be difficult to understand what the changes are.”
The new land use code, which currently has 231 pages, differs from the town’s current land use ordinance in that it is more user-friendly, Frey said.
“The character-based code has the ability for a resident, a landowner, a developer, anyone with any interest in doing a project in Newcastle, to quickly understand what they can do without having to review the entire document start to finish,” Frey said. “You just need to find the section that applies to your district. If it’s 20 pages, that’s the only 20 pages you’ll need of the entire thing.”
In the past few months, the committee has had numerous conversations about the definition of the phrase “rural character,” which appears multiple times in both the code and the comprehensive plan, Frey said.
“One of the things that was said was ‘I’ll know it when I see it,’ and I think that really applies here,” Frey said. “There are enough different places in Newcastle that might define it differently, and that’s something we’ve really been working with.”
In addition to fine-tuning and amending some of the language of the draft documents, the committee’s review included making sure the ideas put forth by residents during various public events were incorporated.
“Overall, (the consultants) did a marvelous job of capturing a lot of Newcastle,” Frey said. “Personally I was very pleased with both documents.”
After the public forum, the Newcastle Local Planning Committee will compile all recommendations and revisions to send back to Maine Design Workshop for a second draft. The second draft will undergo a similar review by the committee and public forum.
A third and final draft will go to a public hearing before residents vote on whether to approve the documents.
Originally, the committee planned to have the documents ready for a vote during the annual town meeting in June. The vote has been pushed back, possibly to November, Frey said.
To read the draft documents or submit feedback, go to newcastlemaine.us/services.