A sign welcomes motorists to Rockland on Tuesday Sept. 7, 2021. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

The two largest towns in Knox County are considering changes to their zoning rules to encourage the development of affordable housing.

Both Rockland and Camden are pursuing either new or amended zoning rules that municipal leaders hope will spur construction of affordable housing as the state experiences a worsening shortage.  Proponents say the changes might not create new development immediately, but zoning is one of the only ways towns can try to alleviate the housing crunch in the long term.

The lack of affordable housing has become an increasing concern in recent years, as the region’s growing status as a desirable place to live and vacation  is pricing out people who have long called the area home. Local leaders fear this will not only hurt the local economy ― as the people who work here can no longer afford to live here ― but on the vibrancy of the community as a whole.

“It’s a matter of chipping away and setting up standards and structures that will hopefully result in more affordable housing over the next decade,” Rockland City Councilor Nate Davis said. “It would be great if we could snap our fingers and wave a magic wand and have developers come and be excited about building [affordable housing]. But municipalities don’t really have all that many tools at their disposal to do this.”

In Rockland, city councilors are in the early stages of considering an inclusionary zoning ordinance, which would require a certain percentage of larger residential or hotel developments to be set aside for affordable housing. In Camden, a proposed zoning amendment aimed at reducing the minimum lot sizes for subdivisions in rural residential zones will go before voters in November.

The proposals come at a time when neither the median monthly rent nor the median price of a home in Knox County is considered affordable, according to 2020 data from MaineHousing, the state’s housing authority.

“There is such a need right now for housing in general. Even people who have a reasonable budget are finding it impossible to find anywhere to live,” Rockland City Councilor Sarah Austin said. “We have to do what we can.”

The Rockland council will discuss the proposed ordinance at its Monday night meeting. The ordinance will likely go through a workshop process to iron out specific details before it goes to a final vote, Austin said.

The proposal as currently drafted would apply to residential developments of six or more units and hotel developments ― or expansions ― of 10 or more rooms. For residential developments, 20-percent of the total units would need to be considered affordable based on the median income of the community. For hotels, the development of one affordable unit for every ten rooms would be required.

Pedestrians and cars move on Main Street in downtown Rockland on Tuesday Sept. 7, 2021. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Developers could opt to pay into a city-managed affordable housing fund in lieu of creating the units, Austin said.

Similar ordinances have been passed in larger cities, including Portland, and have shown to be successful in hot housing markets, Austin said. While no large hotel or residential developments are currently proposed in Rockland, Austin said having this ordinance in place will better prepare the city for when that type of development arrives.

“If this creates one unit, or 20 units, within the next 10 years, if it’s enacted I would count that as a win. We know that the midcoast area and Rockland are experiencing tremendous growth. They’re so desirable, people want to be here and bigger development follows that kind of desire, we’ve seen that in southern Maine,” Austin said.

Rockland also is considering an advisory referendum to gauge whether or not residents are in favor of further amending zoning regulations to allow the development of smaller and more affordable homes. City councilors will vote Monday on whether to place the advisory referendum on the November ballot.

Previous attempts to make citywide zoning changes ― including reducing lot sizes and square footage requirements ― have faced pushback in Rockland. City councilor Nate Davis said the November straw poll would give the council some sense of how the public feels about the issue before going forward with other zoning changes.

“When we’ve discussed residential zoning in the past it has drawn quite a lot of concern and in some cases intense opposition. It is difficult to know if that is representative of the public will at large. I don’t think it is, but it is difficult to gauge without some kind of measurement of it,” Davis said.

Voters in Camden will face a zoning related question at the polls in November. In an attempt to remove some of the barriers to development, officials there are proposing changes to the town’s open space zoning ordinance which would reduce the minimum lot sizes required for residential subdivisions.

Shops that cater to tourists start to reopen under strict guidelines to help prevent the spread of coronavirus, Thursday, May 28, 2020, in Camden, Maine. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

Under Camden’s current zoning rules, a subdivision must consist of seven acres per dwelling unit in one rural zone and four acres per dwelling unit in another. For a three-home development, 21 acres is needed in one zone and 14 acres in another.  

By scaling back the minimum lot size requirement to just over an acre per dwelling in each zone, new housing developments will become more practical for developers, officials say. The change would allow for more clustered style housing development, which is typically a more cost-effective undertaking, according to Camden Town Manager Audra Caler-Bell. The changes still would require that a certain percentage of the development be left as open space.

The proposal is not a silver bullet and town officials are upfront about the uncertainty of how much housing the change could actually spur. But making zoning changes like this, even if they have to be tweaked going forward, are the only real tools municipalities have to encourage the development of housing, Caler-Bell said, since things like construction costs and financing are out of their control.

“We’re trying to just sort of make progress in the areas where we have control over it and then to try to advocate in the areas where we don’t,” Caler-Bell said.