In this file photo from 2019, Wayne Marshall makes a presentation. Credit: Abigail Curtis / BDN

BELFAST, Maine — Belfast city councilors are edging closer to giving the greenlight to a set of sweeping zoning amendments intended to create more opportunities to build new homes in the perpetually housing-strapped midcoast community.

The proposed changes would allow for a more flexible approach to housing in nearly 80 percent of the city. The only zoning districts unaffected by this set of changes are inside and immediately adjacent to the Route 1 bypass, including downtown Belfast.

“From a housing perspective, we think this is a significant change from past city policy,” Wayne Marshall, the project planner with the city’s code and planning office, said Thursday. “We’re not dictating upfront what someone can do. We’re saying, ‘Look at your property and see what works for you.’”

Belfast Planning Board members worked on the zoning changes for eight months before passing them in February to city councilors, who will ultimately vote to accept or reject the proposal.

Last week, councilors debated the proposed amendments to the city’s “Outside Rural Area” during a first reading at the regular city council meeting. Although there was a public hearing scheduled on the changes, no members of the public participated. Another public hearing, the council’s second reading and a potential vote on accepting the changes will take place at the regular city council meeting on Tuesday, April 5.

“In general, I’m very supportive of this,” City Councilor Mike Hurley said about the zoning changes during the meeting. “People might ask why we’re doing it. What’s our motivation? Our motivation is that it is really hard to find a place to live in Belfast right now … It’s beyond a tight housing market. It’s a crisis for Belfast. And we’re not the only ones. It’s going on all over the country.”

The proposed amendments would establish seven new zoning districts and several special use areas in the city. According to Marshall, one of the biggest changes would be the adoption of what the planning board has dubbed “flex housing,” a concept that would allow landowners to have more options for their property than they currently do.

Overall proposed amendments to Belfast zoning. Credit: Courtesy City of Belfast

With flex housing, a property owner can look at the size of their lot and whether they are connected to public sewer to identify how much can be built on their land.

“The intent here is really to create opportunities for the construction of additional housing in Belfast, and hopefully more rental housing,” Marshall said at the meeting.

For example, a person who owns a half-acre parcel on public sewer is allowed a maximum of four dwelling units and a maximum of four dwelling structures. The new rules would let property owners mix and match types of housing — including single-family, duplexes and triplexes — as long as they don’t exceed the maximum number of allowed units.

“It’s up to you,” he said.  

If the property is larger, the numbers of dwelling units and structures they are allowed also grows, he said.

If a property has a septic system rather than a connection to public sewer, as is the case for most of the land in the Outside Rural Area, that reduces the number of housing units somewhat, Marshall said.

A two-acre property, which is the minimum lot size, could support three dwelling structures with a maximum of four dwelling units. A four-acre property could have seven structures with a maximum of 12 units, he said.

“These are creating options for people as to how they may choose to use their property,” he said. “The planning board really looked at how to create some additional housing in Belfast, and we’re hopeful that it would yield some results over time. It’s not one where you see things turn around in a day.”

Councilors did have some questions and concerns as they debated the changes. Councilor Paul Dean proposed reducing the minimum lot size from 2 acres to 1.5 acres. He and others also questioned the recommended road setback of 50 feet, which is more than the 30 feet it has been since at least 1997. An increased setback would require buildings to be built further from the road, leading to higher costs to connect a new home to utilities.

Dean indicated that his priority was to reduce hurdles to homeownership.

“We as a council have talked about … how to create additional housing in the community. Housing that’s affordable, cost-effective and attainable,” he said. “I realize that what we’re doing here is creating more chances for people to live in Belfast.”