A Bangor neighborhood in June 2017. Credit: Gabor Degre / BDN

Nearly 3,000 Bangor homeowners can add onto their homes or make significant renovations without flouting city codes now that the City Council has cut the minimum lot size for almost half of Bangor properties.

The change fundamentally alters Bangor’s approach to housing, giving developers fewer hurdles to overcome in rehabbing properties and allowing for less sprawled-out development in a number of city neighborhoods, said Jeff Wallace, Bangor’s code enforcement director.

The City Council voted in late December to reduce the city’s minimum lot size from either 9,000 or 10,000 square feet — slightly less than a quarter acre — to 5,000. The change, which took effect Jan. 7, affects houses zoned as either Urban Residence 1, Urban Residence 2, or Multifamily and Service — zones that make up 48 percent of the city’s 8,322 lots.

As a result, 2,920 lots that were too small for development under the city’s former minimum lot size now meet the new 5,000-square-foot requirement. That’s 35.1 percent of lots in the city.

Wallace said the change allows homeowners to bring homes on grandfathered-in smaller lots back into compliance with existing city building codes, and will increase density in the city’s urban center, including in neighborhoods such as Little City, Fairmount and the Tree Streets.

Bangor’s lot size requirement was at the 5,000-square-foot level for decades, but the city increased it in the early 1990s to 10,000 square feet for Urban Residence 1 and 9,000 for Urban Residence 2. At the time, Wallace said, trends in housing development were then geared toward larger homes that were more spread out across the city — sprawl, essentially.

“Society as a whole was in a different place,” Wallace said. “It was a more automobile-centric time, and the focus was on bigger spaces with lots of parking.”

Jeff Wallace, director of code enforcement for the city of Bangor, walks back to his car after making a stop at the Rock Church on Nov. 18 to address concerns about mask-wearing. Credit: Natalie Williams / BDN

Those changes resulted in many existing homes on smaller lots suddenly being non-compliant with the city’s development standards. Homeowners on those lots were not allowed to put on a new deck or add a new garage, build an addition to their home or do other significant renovations, such as electrical, plumbing or heating system upgrades.

Over the past 30 years, Wallace said, this had the cumulative effect of preventing some property owners from being able to keep up with required maintenance, resulting in a decline in quality of the overall housing stock.

The goal of decreasing in-town lot size requirements is to encourage denser housing development and improving existing housing, Wallace said.

“Say a property really ought to be knocked down, but the lot size is too small for rebuilding. That can stall development,” Wallace said. “Also, projects often make more financial sense with more units. This will open up more possibilities in the URD-2 zone, which allows up to four units.”

The change in lot size was one of a number of recommendations made by the Bangor Housing Work Group, which formed in 2018 to examine how the city could make housing more affordable.

That group’s report also addressed the problem of condemned properties, which can hurt neighborhoods by becoming eyesores and attracting squatters and vandals, as well by simply taking up valuable housing space while being empty.

In 2016, there were around 200 condemned, or “placarded” properties in Bangor. But that number had fallen to 152 by August 2019, as the city took a more proactive approach to dealing with the properties, rather than letting them languish. There are now 124 on the list.

One roadblock to either rehabilitating or demolishing condemned properties was the fact that many of those properties were in ownership limbo, with banks initiating foreclosure proceedings but not finishing the process. In 2020, however, Wallace said he saw an uptick in the number of banks completing the foreclosure process on some of those properties in Bangor.

“We’ve actually seen more action by banks to move some of these properties and get people in them that will give them some love,” he said. “[Bangor was] one of the last places to be affected by the housing bubble in 2008, and now we’re some of the last to have the fallout from that be addressed. Now we’re finally seeing some movement.”

While other recommendations from the Bangor Housing Work Group are still works in progress, one of them, the creation of a public rental registry that would track inspections and code violations in rental properties, was ready to launch last year, but has been delayed due to the pandemic. The registry would be funded by landlord fees.

“Given the tenuous nature of the rental market, including possible evictions due to COVID and unemployment, we did not feel it was time to bring forward another fee-for-service program,” said Tanya Emery, the city’s community and economic development director.

Going forward, Wallace said, the city may look to decrease the number of off-street parking spots required for multi-unit properties. Currently, multi-unit properties require at least two parking spaces per unit — using up space that developers could instead use for housing. Such a change might involve removing the city’s on-street parking ban in residential neighborhoods during the winter months.

“Those parking requirements eat up a lot of space on a small lot,” Wallace said. “I think we’ll start working on bringing that idea forward, perhaps doing a test run in a neighborhood in Bangor just to see how it goes, and then evaluate it from there.

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Emily Burnham

Emily Burnham is a Maine native and proud Bangorian, covering business, the arts, restaurants and the culture and history of the Bangor region.