An old debate about how much development should be allowed in a wetland area near the Bangor Mall was rekindled this month when a landowner asked the city for a zoning change that would have allowed campsites to open along parts of Stillwater Avenue.
Cindy DeBeck of Newburgh, who owns 70 acres of undeveloped land between the Walmart on Stillwater Avenue and the Penjajawoc Marsh, had hoped to open an RV campground on an area near the marsh. In addition to the zoning change, the campground proposal would have required additional approval from the city.
A thin section of DeBeck’s land is currently zoned in a way that does not allow a campground.
But after more than an hour of discussion Monday night, the Bangor City Council voted 7-2 to reject the proposed change, even though the planning board previously voted 4-3 to recommend the change.
If passed, the change would have grouped Stillwater Avenue with two other major Bangor roads, Broadway and Union Street, where campgrounds — along with golf courses and driving ranges — can be proposed in areas zoned as “Rural Residence and Agricultural.”
However, given past efforts by the city and private entities to protect Penjajawoc Marsh and given the possibility that any zoning changes could bring unintended consequences to an environmentally vulnerable area, more than two-thirds of councilors voted against the proposal.
Some councilors said it’s rare for the City Council to vote against the recommendation of the planning board, but added they had not realized the extent of the proposed zoning change when they first referred it to the planning board.
“If we were voting on this issue, if they were going to be the landowners, they would be great stewards out there,” Councilor Dan Tremble said, referring to DeBeck’s family. “But you know, in a generation or two generations, after all of us are gone, once we make a zone change it’s done. In the future, we don’t know what’s going to happen.”
The marsh is cherished by bird enthusiasts and environmentalists who have resisted efforts to develop the surrounding land and who helped push the city to develop a management plan for the wetland in 2007.
Some of them spoke against the proposed change Monday night and at the March 20 meeting where the planning board endorsed the change.
One of them, Bangor Land Trust president Lucy Quimby, told the planning board that an RV campsite could harm the marsh’s diverse bird population in numerous ways, bringing loud noises and degrading the water quality.
During remarks to the City Council, DeBeck said she wanted to open a campground that would only be open to RVs.
As a landowner there, DeBeck said she served on a city commission formed more than a decade ago to monitor how development of the Stillwater Avenue shopping area would affect Penjajawoc Marsh. She also said she has received offers from developers to buy her land.
She has family who live on neighboring properties, including her son and daughter-in-law, and said the campground would be a low-impact operation that could serve as a protective buffer for the marsh area. She also referred to the fact that campgrounds are already permitted uses in the Rural Residence and Agricultural zones on Union Street and Broadway.
“This is not a zone change,” she said of her request. “It’s already zoned as RR&A. What we want to do is a family-owned project.”
A section of DeBeck’s land on Stillwater Avenue has a different type of zoning where a campground might be allowed, Tanya Emery, the city’s director of community and economic development, said during the City Council meeting Monday night.
Multiple councilors said they hoped DeBeck might be able to open her business in that other area, but DeBeck did not specifically say whether she would try to do that.
After listening to DeBeck’s remarks, Councilors David Nealley and Cary Weston cast the only votes in favor of her proposed changes. Nealley said that he supported the changes in part because of his support for landowner rights and the lack of a legally binding easement preserving the area around the marsh.
Weston said that a campground, golf course or driving range would have a far smaller impact on the environment than the big box stores that are already nearby. He also said that DeBeck would need to seek additional city approval before opening a campsite.
“You still have your woods,” Weston said. “You still have animals around you. To me, that shows less impact.”
But even though DeBeck’s proposal would not involve steel beams, shopping carts or a large parking lot, Councilor Gretchen Schaefer said she was still worried about its potential toll on the marsh.
“A campground is 24-7,” she said.