Residents pack a Kittery Town Council meeting Monday night. Credit: Hadley Barndollar | Portsmouth Herald

KITTERY, Maine — A proposal to rezone the town’s business park to a neighborhood mixed-use designation has steadily received concerned reactions from residents and abutters over the last several months, and at Monday night’s Town Council public hearing on the matter, it warranted tears, a famous “Field of Dreams” quote, and an overwhelming fear that Kittery someday may become like its neighboring city across the bridge.

Many residents spoke out against the proposal over the course of two hours, urging town councilors to leave the ultimate decision to a town-wide ballot referendum vote. After the testimonies of many Martin Road residents who described an alleged assault on their neighborhood and its natural environment, the Town Council voted to postpone any vote until its second meeting in November, so a larger community forum can be held before then to address misinformation.

Credit: Shawn St. Hilaire | Seacoast Online

The current business park is approximately 90 acres on the southbound side of Interstate 95 in between Dennett Road and Route 236, a part of town that has been deemed a targeted growth area since 1999, said Town Manager Kendra Amaral, due to its proximity to the interstate and major routes. The zone was originally established as a Tax Increment Financing District (TIF), but development never materialized for a variety of reasons, including challenging site topography.

Amaral described the neighborhood mixed-use proposal as an opportunity to create an “active neighborhood,” which incentivizes clusters, walkable developments and pedestrian activity. The proposal originally came out of a land-use study completed in Aug. 2017 that sparked a planning and zoning drafting effort. It has since gone through a lengthy process with the town Open Space Advisory Committee and Planning Board, the latter of which sent the proposal onto the Town Council with a 4-2 vote in June.

The neighborhood mixed-use designation encourages “higher density, mixed-use development that provides increased housing opportunities and a desirable setting for business while balancing such increased development with environmentally-conscious and ecologically sensitive use of land,” the zoning reads. Permitted uses on the property could include housing, a grocery store, hospital, hotel, restaurant, recreation, retail or eldercare facilities, for example.

Originally, the proposal faced major pushback at the Planning Board level because it included elevated allowable building heights of 70 feet, which would have required the town to purchase a new fire truck. But after overwhelming opposition, the proposal before the Town Council Monday had been amended back down to 50 feet, the current maximum height in town.

Residents raised concern that the proposal was out of sync with the Comprehensive Plan set to be decided in the voting booth in November, a detail-oriented document outlining goals for Kittery’s future.

Resident Barbara Bean read directly from the introductory pages of the draft Comprehensive Plan, claiming that as Maine’s “gatekeepers,” it’s Kittery’s responsibility to preserve the land as “relatively undeveloped, clean, neat, old, rugged, authentic and natural;” a few of the adjectives she used.

Martin Road resident Jen Thayer showed the Town Council a petition for which she and neighbors had collected more than 170 signatures. Thayer, who has spoken at several prior meetings about her concern for area wetlands, got especially emotional while talking about her neighborhood.

″‘If you build it, they will come’ is a great Hollywood concept, but it’s a great risk for us,” Thayer said. “We don’t have to give into the disposable culture that favors getting something new over using something you already have… what we’ve been put through and what has happened to our properties, all for the sake of development. We are experiencing extreme negative impacts from filling of fragile lands, excessive blasting and tree removal.”

Jennifer Bassett said she was concerned the new zone would overburden local roads and have negative impacts on existing neighborhoods. “I’m not against development, I know it’s inevitable,” she said. “But I’m reminded of the tall buildings in Portsmouth where I moved here from. I think a town-wide referendum is really what we deserve.”

References to the neighboring city of Portsmouth were regular occurrences throughout the meeting, and two residents even used the example of an absence of spring peepers to demonstrate what’s allegedly happening to local land.

Martin Road resident Karen Burbank called the tree clearing, blasting and flooding that has occurred on and around her property “my nightmare.” She doesn’t hear the peepers anymore, she said, also noting she purchased her land in the late 1980s because at the time, there was assurance that the surrounding land would remain undeveloped.

“We are all very fearful of what the environmental impact would be on our already overtaxed and stressed land,” Burbank said.

Resident Ed Callahan said peepers could once be heard in Portsmouth’s Market Square, when “there was no noise pollution.”

“Look at Portsmouth,” he said. “Look at what they did to that beautiful place. It just went unchecked, it’s all about money.”

Callahan issued a warning that “once it’s built, it’s gonna be there.” He called the town of Kittery “a gem.”

Willie Goodson, of Martin Road, approached the podium and told town councilors what he had to say “will make you mad at me,” but “I feel that this must be said.”

Goodson went on to list the adjectives and descriptors he alleged other residents had used about the Town Council and Planning Board when he spoke to them during the petitioning process. The words and phrases included sneaky, conniving, dishonest, nepotism, favoritism, total disregard for the environment, lack of transparency, and no regard for the people of Kittery.

He said the prior Martin Road sewer expansion was “the kiss of death,” a first step in a “long thought-out plan to make this parcel of land more developable.” He urged the council to vote no, table the proposal, or send it to a referendum.

Resident Sarah Dennett said she was particularly concerned about population density in an area that already struggles with traffic and safety. “I’m confused,” she said. “I want to know what’s going in next door. I want to know what’s happening to my town.”

A small handful of residents did speak in favor of the proposal, including two who own some of the parcels that make up the current business park. David Garrison said he felt neighborhood mixed-use allows for “better uses that impact the town more favorably,” such as a pedestrian village, “a place for people to live, to work, to dine there.”

He said any particular development, he hoped, would be tasteful and thoughtful, adding economic stimulus while also being productive for that particular area of town.

Sanford Roberts, also an owner of land in the business park since 2007, said the property has been vetted better than any other in town, and he felt it was in Kittery’s best interest to change the zoning. Roberts said the industrial proposals that haven’t come to fruition in the past would have been “much more detrimental” to the town.

Old Dennett Road resident Helen Betts spoke in favor of the zoning change, noting, “We’ve had things come up for the business park that we’ve all fought against. I think mixed-use is far better for the communities that surround it and for the town of Kittery itself.”

The town’s Economic Development Committee has also previously endorsed the proposal.

When it was the Town Council’s turn to discuss the proposal at hand, Councilor Frank Dennett said the council has “perhaps been somewhat remiss in our duty in making people aware of what is going on.” However, Dennett noted there was a lot of misinformation being discussed Monday night, and for that reason, he did not feel comfortable voting yes or no.

While many Martin Road residents believed they were speaking also to a separate proposed expansion of the zone itself, which would abutt their particular properties, that piece of the proposal has yet to leave the Planning Board level and was not included in the Town Council’s decision-making Monday night.

Councilor Jeffrey Thomson said he believed, after watching the rezoning process for more than two years, the proposed change “is a better path forward for that particular parcel.” But he wanted residents to be more comfortable with the proposal, so he urged the best way to advance the conversation was to postpone the item and hold a more informal community session where people can ask questions and obtain accurate information.

Councilor Matt Brock said while he was concerned about the allegations of a lack of transparency on the council’s part, he felt “a lot of work has gone into this in good faith, although it’s not perceived by some in that vein.”

“I’m up here for you,” Councilor Charles Denault told the residents of Martin Road. “I’ve listened to you. Your voices are not being ignored. We’re trying very hard.”

The council voted 6-0-1, with Gary Beers abstaining, to postpone any decision to November.

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