KITTERY, Maine — While assuring skeptical residents that the neighborhood mixed-use zoning change will bring more benefit than harm, the Town Council threw unanimous support behind the proposal Monday night, the final vote in a long process that warranted persistent citizen opposition.
The 7-0 vote rezoned the town’s designated business park district, approximately 90 acres on the southbound side of Interstate 95 in between Dennett Road and Route 236. The public hearing process over the course of several months at both the Planning Board and Town Council levels saw emotional residents pleading to leave the character of the land and its natural resources unchanged.
The business park, which, though a TIF district, has lain dormant for years, has been a targeted area of growth for the town. Town Manager Kendra Amaral has described the neighborhood mixed-use zone as an opportunity to create an “active neighborhood,” which incentivizes clusters, walkable developments and pedestrian activity, through housing, retail, recreation and other uses.
The proposal originally came out of a land-use study completed in August 2017 that sparked a planning and zoning draft effort. The process continued to the town Open Space Advisory Committee and then Planning Board, the latter of which sent the proposal onto the Town Council with a 4-2 vote in June.
The proposal originally drew push back over elevated building heights of 70 feet, but after rounds of public meetings and upset residents, the height was lowered to the current allowable height of 50 feet. Residents raised concerns that the zoning change would bring Portsmouth development realities to Kittery, and that it was out of sync with the Comprehensive Plan, a detail-oriented document outlining goals for the town’s future.
At the Sept. 24 Town Council meeting, Martin Road residents described an alleged assault on their neighborhood and its natural environment, which led to the council postponing its vote, so a separate community forum could be held in October to address misinformation.
Those who had previously spoken in favor of the proposal felt the parcels in question had been vetted better than any other in town, and tasteful development would add an economic stimulus.
On Monday night, Amaral presented the council with a slightly tweaked proposal, which included a new 100-foot buffer for any development from Martin Road, if in the future the town decided to expand the zone that far. As approved Monday, the boundary “is still nowhere near Martin Road,” Amaral said.
Amaral said the entire process has unearthed a series of decisions that resulted in consequential impacts on the Martin Road neighborhood, such as the sewer expansion project and prior wetlands filling. The town is working to address those, she said, but they don’t necessarily relate to the zoning change.
Residents on Martin Road had gathered more than 170 signatures in opposition to the proposal, and previously asked the council to send it to a town-wide referendum vote.
“I would like to think that the board would do what the residents want,” resident Willie Goodson said Monday. “I don’t understand why we’re rezoning an area when we’re not really sure how it’s going to affect everything. I know you put a lot of work into it and I appreciate that, but we don’t want it. I don’t understand if we as residents of Kittery don’t want it, how you can sit here and vote for it?”
Councilor Jeffrey Thomson called the rezoning process “a long and winding road,” pointing out that the council delayed action on the proposal to “allow residents to gather one more time.”
“I believe this proposal has been thoroughly, and I do mean thoroughly, vetted,” Thomson said. “This proposal has received far, far more analysis and questioning than what certainly took place 30 years ago when the assault on Route 1 began in this community.”
Thomson said the zone change will be a “net positive” for the town.
“Am I completely free of concern?” said Councilor Matt Brock. “This is a tough site. There are vernal pools and wetlands in this site. What is being proposed though is better than what we have now. I’m not going to offer this to the community that this will have no problems or issues associated with it, but I do think it’s a step forward for the community. It’s a tough call, but a better call.”
Under business park zoning, Councilor Charles Denault said, “I know what you guys can have in that pit right now, and I don’t think anyone wants that.”
“I’ve proved myself to the residents of Martin Road and Dennett Road, and I would never let you guys hang,” he said.
Councilor Ken Lemont said he was initially concerned about the elevated building heights, but once that was changed, so did his mind. The new zone gives property owners an opportunity to grow the tax base, he said, and will not go without monitoring and a system of checks and balances.
“There’s 32 accepted uses that can go in there, but every one of them would have to go before the Planning Board,” he said.
“The change in the ordinance will yield something that is better than what the current ordinance would yield,” said Chairwoman Judy Spiller. “I hope you know that some of us will be watching very closely at any sort of development that takes place in the area, that your local environment is protected.”