The Newcastle Board of Selectmen held a workshop Wednesday, Dec. 5 to discuss the next steps after voters rejected a new land use ordinance, known as the Newcastle Character Code, on Election Day.
The Newcastle Local Planning Committee started work on the code, which would have replaced the town’s current land use ordinance, about three years ago. Voters rejected it 623-488.
Board of selectmen Chair Brian Foote started the meeting by listing some of the town’s options, such as keeping the existing ordinance, modifying the existing ordinance, making changes to the character code, or starting over.
“What I’ve heard is, people have voted. They don’t want the proposed character code,” Selectman Christopher Doherty said.
Selectman Joel Lind suggested gathering feedback on what residents want.
“As someone who worked on (the code), I’d like to know what elements of it were accepted by the community and what elements were not,” he said.
The town needs to do something, as the current ordinance “does not fit Newcastle,” Lind said, but the selectmen cannot determine a course of action until they better understand the vote.
Selectman Carolyn Hatch said she does not think most residents would come to a meeting to share their opinions on the code.
Foote suggested that along with a public meeting, the selectmen could create a survey or go door to door.
“It would take some time, but it’s not like we’re in a great rush,” he said.
Doherty suggested the formation of a new committee to look at the issue, but spoke against trying to fix the character code.
“We already spent a year doing that. You got an old car, how many times do you fix it before you buy a new car?” he said.
“I don’t think we should throw what the committee spent three-plus years working on away,” Foote said. “I would hate to throw $145,000 out the window. I would hate to throw three years’ worth of time out the window. I think, reading it, to me it’s worth looking at it and figuring out what people like and don’t like about it, and retuning it.”
Foote read a letter from the local planning committee with suggestions for next steps. The committee suggested gathering feedback from residents and adding more voices from the community to the committee.
“Until we know what they want, we don’t know what to do,” Lind said. “Voting is an incredibly important thing and it does give you some direction, but it doesn’t give us direction forward.”
“Our first step is to get some answers and some direction from the town,” Foote said.
Selectman Ben Frey agreed, saying “an attempt should absolutely be made” to engage the community.
“We don’t need to rush into anything, but I would state that the fact is, we need to do something,” he said.
“I just don’t think we’re going to get people speaking up in front of us,” Hatch said. “And going door to door, I’d feel harassed if someone came knocking on my door.”
“There is interest,” Lind said. “If they’re passionate about it and they have ideas and they have concepts, and whatever it is, I want to know. I want to hear it.”
Foote said that if the selectmen hold a meeting soon, the vote may be fresh in residents’ minds, which could lead to strong turnout.
The selectmen then asked for comments from those in attendance.
“I don’t think we need character-based in the rural area at all. We don’t need those regulations,” Newcastle resident Don Hunt said. He also said the code was too long and complex.
“Somebody’s got to listen to the people,” he said.
“I think it’s necessary to have a meeting and ask people to attend, but it’s only a select group of people that actually show up,” planning committee member Katharina Keoughan said.
She said many people did not read the code or understand it.
“They’re looking for personalities to tell them how to vote, not looking at the issues,” she said. “I think that’s one of the problems.”
“I think it’s far too complex a concept to expect most people to understand,” she said. “In theory, it seems like a good idea, but it’s not hitting home. And yet I would hate to see all the positive work not being used.”
Newcastle Fire Chief Clayton Huntley said the character code should be set aside due to the contention surrounding it.
“I hope that the selectmen see fit to set this one aside for awhile and talk about a land use code. It doesn’t have to be the old one, it doesn’t have to be the proposed one,” he said. He said he feels the conversation is too focused on the character code.
“I want to get a good overview of what the residents are looking for – what they’re satisfied with, what they’re not satisfied with,” Lind said. “In no way, shape, or form am I trying to overturn the will of the voters. I’m trying to figure out what will work for the town of Newcastle.”
Town attorney Peter Drum said the existing ordinance remains overly restrictive and “very difficult to administer.”
“This thing was designed to prevent any kind of development whatsoever,” he said. “When I look at the structure of the new code, what’s surprising to me is some of the comments I’ve heard were people saying, ‘You can’t do anything,’ but it’s actually far more free than the current code.”
He said the character code would have allowed for a faster review process.
“I think that it’s a shame that the people didn’t understand that,” he said. “We need to figure out what the town wants.”
Foote suggested that at the beginning of 2019 the selectmen hold another workshop to decide how to ask residents for their views.