Main Street in Downtown Rockland. Credit: Gabor Degre

ROCKLAND, Maine — Residents in Rockland fear that attempts aimed at developing more affordable housing will erode the character of their existing neighborhoods and said they will challenge any zoning recommendations the council puts forth to address the problem.

This includes reducing minimum lot sizes in the downtown residential area, and allowing for tiny homes in mobile parks and detached dwellings on single-family lots. The comprehensive plan committee could consider these ideas as it works on updating the city’s master plan, but residents say they should be prepared for a fight.

“I can’t believe you are bringing this up again,” Rockland resident Adele Faber told councilors at a Wednesday night meeting. “We don’t want our neighborhoods destroyed.”

More than half of households in Rockland aren’t able to afford the median home price there, according to the Maine Housing Authority. Over the past two years, the council has focused on developing more affordable housing with great opposition. New zoning changes recommended by a contracted city planner are minor in comparison to the overhaul of the city’s residential zoning code last year. Officials eased a number of development restrictions, but ultimately repealed them following protest — and a lawsuit — from residents.

Opponents to residential zoning changes worry that cutting lot sizes and allowing for accessory apartments would bring down their property values. Despite a record-breaking year in real estate for Maine, Knox County saw the biggest losses both in homes sold and its median sales prices in 2019, according to data released this week by Maine Listings. Sales were down by 9 percent and the median home price was down 3.62 percent to $236,125.

“It’s the nature of our neighborhoods that makes Rockland so attractive,” one resident said.

While it’s uncertain if and when the city will consider these changes, residents warned councilors that if these changes are pursued, they will circulate another petition to repeal the action

“Have you heard anything that we have said over the last year? Do you even care,” Rockland resident Jim Ebbert asked the council.

Ebbert filed a lawsuit against the city last year after city councilors passed changes to the residential zoning code. The lawsuit alleged the council did not properly advertise the meeting at which the ordinance was approved.

The lawsuit also alleged that the zoning changes violated the city’s comprehensive plan because they did “not take into consideration the preservation of the character of the neighborhood,” as required by the plan.

A citizen’s petition to repeal the ordinance by citywide referendum was also circulated, but the city council ultimately repealed the changes in the wake of the lawsuit.

Donna Larson, the planner the city hired to review zoning ordinances, said that any future changes should align with the comprehensive plan.

Some residents opposed to zoning changes said Rockland simply doesn’t have an affordability problem and accused city councilors of having “secret agendas.”

“I am not a secret developer,” City Councilor Valli Geiger said. “Our future relies on our workforce and they continue to struggle to find an affordable place to live.”