BAR HARBOR — A proposed new version of the land use ordinance meant to be more user friendly and less confusing is likely to come before voters this June. The planning board Jan. 15 recommended putting the item on the next town meeting warrant.
After sitting through their second public hearing on the document in a month, and hearing familiar criticisms from a handful of citizens who said that the proposed ordinance makes too many changes at once and that the average person cannot understand what they will be voting on, board members voted 3-0 to ask the town council to put the issue on the ballot.
Interim planner Angela Chamberlain opened the evening by outlining the history of the ordinance rewrite project, outlining the goals and explaining that this project is being considered as the first phase of a multi-phase approach to creating positive land use rule changes.
“While these changes are far from making this a perfect document, this reorganization and cleanup will make the LUO more user friendly, easier to navigate and set up in a format that will make the next phase easier to implement,” Chamberlain said. “There are still many more areas of the ordinance that need to be addressed and amended, and the more complex amendments are more appropriate for the next phase.”
During the public hearing, resident Stewart Brecher spoke to how essential it would be to make sure that phase two happens. He recommended that a three-year sunset clause be attached to the proposed LUO to ensure that the work is done in a timely fashion.
“I think the biggest problem for me is, how do we ensure that phase two actually happens, and happens in a reasonable amount of time?” Brecher asked.
Planning board members later said that they agreed with Brecher in theory, but that inserting a sunset clause now would be impractical. They supported the idea of discussing a timeline for further land use changes in future meetings.
The bulk of the comments from the public highlighted distrust in the work of town officials, with several people, such as Donna Karlson, Terri Zabala, Arthur Greif and Dennis Bracale, stating that the average person has neither the time nor the ability to review the 400 to 500 page document and to digest every specific change being suggested.
“I tried to go over these changes in the last year and a half. It’s too lengthy. It’s not accessible … it’s too time consuming, and it’s not convenient,” Zabala said.
Regarding the language posted for the public hearing, she said, “The one key phrase that keeps getting me says, ‘Included but not limited to.’ That is a red flag to me. I consider this a type of contract … with the people you are representing. And you are asking me to just go along with whatever you tell me and not to question things and not to look up things.”
Bracale, Karlson and others insisted that there are too many changes being presented at once. They said that the issue would be dealt with better if voters could weigh in on each specific change separately.
Karlson, who said she sits on the government subcommittee of the warrant committee and is thus one of the people responsible for recommending to voters how they should vote on the issue, said that, “It’s like we get this massive document, and we have to look at it and make this powerful and very important recommendation to the voters of Bar Harbor. I think it’s just too big a task for us to do. This is just too big a task to take with a document with 500 pages and do a good job.”
Much of the rewrite of the document involved moving and restating sections outlining standards in the requirements for individual zones. Voting on each of the ordinance’s more than 100 sections independently could result in some zones being changed while others would be left with the current confusing references.
Board members supported a single up or down vote. All of the three sitting members of the five-member planning board indicated their comfort with the transparency of the process and the steps that have been taken to ensure that voters will have good knowledge of what they are voting on. They also supported the repeal-and-replace method of instituting the changes.
“Personally, I think the holistic approach is preferable to a piecemeal approach, given the fact that doing it one piece at a time is how we got to where we are with the rewrite,” board chairman Ivan Rasmussen said. “It may be a lot to consider as one document. I think it would be chaos to proceed one piece at a time.”
Board member Tom St. Germain explained the issue even more succinctly. “If we were to split it out into line items, the conclusions that we reached in these discussions earlier were that if one line item was approved but a subsequent one down the line somewhere wasn’t, they might create a conflict,” he said.
The land use ordinance rewrite process has been in the works for several years. The town originally contracted with land use attorney Mary Denison for $40,000 to do the job, but Chamberlain said the price has no doubt risen from there with all of the subsequent issues that have come up. Twice, the document has been considered ready to go to voters, and twice, attentive citizens have found errors, including new uses given to certain districts, items that were to have been corrected following a 2010 lawsuit that were never changed, errors in transcription and the like.
The proposed replacement LUO is not meant to make any substantive changes, although some things do change. Appeals of subdivisions would move directly to Superior Court. Completeness of planning projects would be determined by the code enforcement officer. Subdivision and site plan review would be separated into different sections. Appendix C would be eliminated and each district set into its own chapter with its own map and list of allowed uses.
Another change would make major utility installations, such as electrical substations, subject to planning board review in zones where it is not currently required.
Opponents of the proposal have raised issues about many of these changes, stating that they do change policy in substantial ways. Town officials and planning board members seem satisfied with the explanation that they have for each and state that the only change will be a more efficient and orderly process for the applicant.
The town council is slated to hold its own public hearing on the proposal at its Feb. 3 meeting.