Downtown Zoning Hearing Draws Support, Critiques

By: Ed Maroney

Topics: Municipal Planning and Zoning , Orleans news

Katie Wibby of the affordable housing committee speaks at the planning board's Jan. 24 hearing on a proposed zoning amendment that would allow increased residential density downtown.  ED MARONEY PHOTO

ORLEANS Planning board members may have found their way forward with an even more complicated downtown zoning amendment after a third public hearing Jan. 24. Speakers were supportive of doing something to make downtown more lively, but they differed on the ways and means.

After 18 months of work, the board has hammered out a plan detailed at the meeting by George Meservey, director of planning and community development. To encourage diversity of housing opportunities for young and old, the proposal would reduce minimum lot size for apartment development in the Limited Business and General Business districts around the Village Center, which has already seen a reduction in the requirement. It would increase density by allowing more dwelling units per acre, another spur to development.

The plan requires that one out of every 10 new units be “affordable,” and offers density bonuses for adding more affordable units and for historic preservation. Height limits in all three districts would be raised to 35 feet to allow full third stories. With 10 percent of new units qualifying as affordable, the town, now at 9.3 percent, would not fall farther behind the state goal of 10 percent affordable housing stock.

Hundreds of new units could be constructed if the proposal goes forward to town meeting and is approved, but Meservey said it was “likely that the resulting development would be quite a bit lower than the potential.” Nevertheless, he said the proposal is sufficient to incentivize investment, increase housing supply and year-round residents, and improve the tax base, all while protecting community character.

Roberta Anslow said she appreciated the effort to revitalize downtown, but cautioned against developers “taking on a financial burden” to provide affordable units. “Maybe the town could help defray the cost.”

“We have a distressed downtown,” Walter North said in supporting action in the area. He urged, however, that the planning board look to “comparable communities which have successfully introduced changes like this” before proceeding. “See if there are better models and be more focused on the village center,” he said.

Brian Kavanaugh criticized the proposal for using units rather than bedrooms as a standard, calling the former “a much blunter instrument” that is less sensitive to wastewater impacts. He called the zoning amendment “out of touch with mainstream thinking and initiatives in our town.”

Judith Bruce said she was “not really concerned about this being out of control. We need younger people, people who are going to be here year-round. When we have more young people here, we will have more business here.”

John Sargent seemed to sum things up when he said, “I care a lot about this town, and I think this is a step forward.”