Main Street in Downtown Rockland. Credit: Gabor Degre / BDN

ROCKLAND, Maine ― City officials have rolled back restrictions on accessory dwelling units in a move aimed at creating more housing and tamping down high prices.

The measure to remove an existing requirement that accessory dwelling units ― like apartments in barns or garages ― be attached to the primary residence on city properties was passed by the Rockland City Council Monday night by a vote of 4-1.

Proponents of the zoning change are hopeful it can help create more housing units, as affordable year-round rentals in Rockland have become increasingly hard to come by.

“I think it’s a very minor change that could possibly create more rentals and slightly alleviate the housing crisis here,” resident Andy O’Brien said. “Rockland is fast becoming a place for wealthy retirees, snowbird and summer residents while the working people who keep this town running are being pushed out at a rapid clip.”

Rockland, like many midcoast communities, has struggled to remain affordable. Median home prices in Knox County are about $30,000 more than the average homebuyer can easily afford, according to MaineHousing data from 2019. In Rockland alone, 52 percent of residents can’t afford the median home price.

In 2020, the average cost of a two-bedroom rental in the city was about $1,500 per month. In order to afford this rent, a household would need to have a yearly income of about $60,000. However, the average income of a renter in Rockland is only $33,500.

When it comes to alleviating affordability problems, city government is limited in authority. Changing zoning requirements, which would allow for more housing units to be built, is one of the main tools that a city has.

Accessory dwelling units have been allowed in the city, but only if the secondary building is somehow connected to the main home on the property, such as by a breezeway or deck. City Councilor Nate Davis, who co-sponsored the amendment to remove the attachment requirement, said the change is minor.

“All it does is reduce the cost and complexity of construction,” he said.

This latest change is not the first time Rockland has tried to amend its zoning ordinances to create more housing opportunities. Nearly two years ago, Rockland City Council tried to address the need for more affordable housing with a sweeping set of zoning changes that included reducing lots sizes and square-footage requirements, among other tweaks.

But the changes were opposed by residents who feared the overhaul of city zoning would harm the fabric of existing neighborhoods. One resident filed a lawsuit against the city, claiming the council did not follow the proper procedure. The council ultimately repealed the zoning changes.

The city has faced some pushback on removing the attachment requirement, from people who say it could “radically change existing neighborhoods with dense infill,” as resident Phyllis Miriam said Monday.

Others have raised concerns over fears that the zoning change will allow tiny-homes to pop up in backyards throughout the city, as well as the effect that infill can have on stormwater runoff.

But some councilors say the scope of this fear isn’t in line with the scope of the change. Many towns and cities in Maine already allow detached accessory dwellings, such as Bar Harbor, Belfast, Yarmouth and York.

“There are a lot of other communities that have tried this and I don’t think any of them are ruined because of it,” City Councilor Sarah Austin said. “The trend has not been that housing has been devalued.”

While it is unclear how many additional housing units this change will drive, proponents say it’s just one small way the city can try to tackle its housing shortage.

“We’re going to have to take a multifaceted approach to what is a national issue in our small community, which is the issue of housing affordability and availability,” City Councilor Ben Dorr said.