AUGUSTA, Maine — A bipartisan bill introduced in the Legislature this week would target local zoning regulations in an effort to increase Maine’s supply of housing amid ongoing concerns about affordability.
The bill, sponsored by House Speaker Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, along with Sen. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop, and Rep. Amy Arata, R-New Gloucester, takes up nearly all of the recommendations of a legislative commission on housing, which released a draft report in December calling for measures aimed at increasing housing availability across the state.
It showcases an aggressive approach from the Legislature to address growing concern about lack of affordable housing in Maine by targeting local zoning provisions that advocates have long criticized as driving up housing costs. But it is already facing pushback from local governments who say the one-size-fits all approach would prove a significant burden.
“Maine is facing an affordable housing crisis,” Fecteau, who chaired the legislative commission, said in a statement. “In too many municipalities, a web of various zoning and land use ordinances and state laws, some decades old, are preventing sensible affordable housing projects — big and small — from coming to fruition.”
The legislation includes provisions banning municipalities from adopting so-called growth caps that limit yearly housing construction, allowing up to four homes to be built on lots previously zoned for one and permitting homeowners to build accessory dwelling units on their properties. It would also require municipalities to allow affordable housing developments with greater housing density and less off-street parking.
The bill would bar municipalities from using criteria such as “character of a location” and “overcrowding of the land” to restrict the construction of new housing, and would establish a review board with members appointed by the governor that could overturn municipal decisions denying permitting for new housing.
It does also include limited funding to create programs under the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development offering technical assistance and grants to municipalities to develop new land use ordinances.
Municipal governments are skeptical of legislation restricting local control. The Maine Municipal Association’s policy committee already voted to oppose the bill as it stands, said Kate Dufour, a lobbyist for the group who served on the housing commission last year.
She pointed to concerns that the bill would take away regulatory authority and impose more work for municipalities that would need to adopt many new policies in a short timeframe.
“Communities get it — that there’s a housing issue that needs to be resolved, that we need to be active players,” Dufour said. “But we need the tools that work best for each of our communities because no two communities are alike.”
The effort to target local zoning regulations comes as Maine has recognized the need to address housing shortages. The bill would likely have the greatest effect in urban areas. Rapidly growing towns in southern Maine have been at the forefront of the state’s housing crunch, though coastal towns and the Bangor area are also seeing rapidly rising housing costs.
The National Low-Income Housing Coalition estimates the state lacks about 19,000 housing units needed for low-income renters. The median monthly rental cost for a two-bedroom apartment rose to $1,088 in 2020, according to the Maine State Housing Authority — a level not considered affordable for the median renter.
A handful of other states have taken some similar steps in recent years, with California and Oregon eliminating single-family zoning after protracted political fights. But the legislation could face backlash given Maine’s history of local control over housing issues.
The bill is scheduled for a public hearing in front of the Legislature’s labor committee next Monday. Fecteau was speaking at events in favor of the bill in southern Maine on Wednesday.