2018-01-11 / Front Page

Public backlash ensues over UNE proposal

By Grant McPherson
Staff Writer

BIDDEFORD – The planning board postponed a public hearing for a zoning change on University of New England property after public response in opposition to the change.

The planning board will hold an official public hearing in February, date to be determined, on the proposal to change a section of the shoreland zoning from Limited Residential to a General Development 2 Institutional District. City Planner Greg Tansley used the Wednesday, Jan. 3 meeting as an opportunity for officials from the university to elaborate on their plans and city residents to ask questions.

Alan Thibeault, University of New England assistant vice president for planning, gave a presentation before Tansley, planning board members Roch Angers, William Southwick, Richard Potvin and Larry Patoine as well as about 20 members of the public, including Ward 1 Councilor Michael Swanton.

The university wants to remove about 80 percent of a parking lot, located between Jordan Point and the Jack S. Ketchum Library. It then proposes to construct trails, signs and an overlook next to the river in its place. The university also wants to build a presentation pavilion or amphitheater on the remaining pavement of the existing parking lot. However, the proposed pavilion would lie within the 100-foot setback in place under the current zoning rule. The minimum setback within the General Development 2 zone is 75 feet. Thibeault said the removal of the parking lot pavement would mean less impervious surface and less storm water runoff flowing into the river.

The city received more than 25 emails between Dec. 31 and Jan. 3 in response to the proposed zoning change, all expressing opposition to it.

Kyle Noble, a Hills Beach Road resident, expressed concern over what the zoning change would allow the school to build along the water.

“In the dark of the winter while America finishes with the holidays UNE has once again done its homework and is pushing for future advantage,” he wrote. “They will remind us what an economic force they are to the local economy. Then they will ask for a ‘simple’ Shoreland zone change at the local level. Though they already have their overlay Institutional Zone, they are also ‘burdened’ by the overlay of Limited Residential zoning on their river front. This should be tabled till coastal owners are more likely to be present, informed, and able to give relevant feedback, say August 2018.”

Charles Caragianes and his wife live on Hills Beach Road and are members of the Hills Beach Association. He learned of the zoning change through the association. His concern was less with the change itself and more so with how the city and university went about informing the public.

“Our neighbors have articulately outlined the very meaningful objections to the proposed changes in terms of significant environmental impact and the potential for overuse of the space, particularly during the already heavy use in the summer months,” he wrote. “I would like to add to these objections my frank astonishment at the timing of this hearing on Jan. 3. This date falls when home owners on Hills Beach Road are minimally present to give input, while students and many staff members at UNE are on break and are unable to be present should they have views divergent from the official university position, and immediately following the holiday season when focus in general is away from such political business. Postings of this hearing have been of the most minimal nature as well, though likely within the requisite posting requirements.

“I must say, and sadly so, that this process has all the signs of a ‘back door’ maneuver to quietly move a significant change in land use through the hearing process while the absolute fewest people are available to object and while attention and scrutiny are understandably elsewhere during the holiday season.

“A cursory reading of these requested changes leads us to believe they are far too broad to maintain the character of the Hills Beach area which border on nationally protected open space. Any amendments in zoning must be clear in the limitations of the type of development allowable rather than hoping entities can balance competing priorities of development with preservation of open space.”

Tansley sent a response to everyone who emailed him before noon on Jan. 3.

“The impetus for this request is solely related to UNE’s City and Saco River Corridor Commission’s existing approvals for the waterfront activities along the Saco River,” he wrote. “This proposal has absolutely nothing to do with the Biddeford Pool/Marsh side of Hills Beach Road. My understanding of the timing of this proposal and review is related to UNE’s hopes to begin construction this spring/summer and that the zoning change process can take several months to complete. A concern had been raised about the provision in the change that would allow commercial and industrial uses in the shoreland zone. According to UNE this is not their intent and they would be fine removing that, which I intend to recommend.”

At Wednesday’s meeting, Thibeault said the university has to submit a master plan to the city, detailing impacts of continued development on the surrounding community such as traffic and noise, every five years. The pavilion construction was approved by the city in the January 2016 master plan, according to Thibeault. He said the limited residential zone doesn’t make sense for the university since it is an institution, and the general development zone would be more consistent with the rest of campus zoning.

“Just because the General Development 2 Overlay zone would potentially allow for commercial or industrial uses, it’s fairly general,” Thibeault said. “We have our university Institutional zone standards, under which only university uses are allowed on Institutional zoned property. It’s very specific on the allowances and types of facilities that can happen and occur there.

“I worked with our civil engineer on the proposal for changing the zone from Limited Residential to General Development. I failed to recognize there is also Limited Residential zoning on the marsh side when the civil engineer put it together. We want to improve the environment by taking away pavement. In my opinion we are trying to do something good by helping prevent any issues with the environment in that location. We are not circumventing regulations, we are trying to make sure the zoning we have is consistent with the uses we have on campus today.”

Ward 1 resident Ken Buechs spoke at Wednesday’s meeting and said that the university would receive special treatment if the zoning change were to pass.

“There are hundreds of homes in this limited residential zone that require right now a 100-foot setback,” he said. “If we relax the requirement for UNE by moving it out of the (Limited Residential) zone, it suggests that that would be inconsistent with (Limited Residential) Shoreland zoning for those hundreds of homes. You would certainly unravel a ball of twine if that were the issue. I suggest talking more about that as this project moves along.”

Prior to the official public hearing in February, residents can send emails to planningboard@biddefordmaine.org to address all planning board members as well as Tansley. The planning board will make a recommendation to council within 30 days of the February public hearing on whether it should approve the zoning change.

“I honestly feel that as a former city councilor and planning board member two times around, we do listen and we are concerned, no doubt about it,” Angers said.

Contact Staff Writer Grant McPherson at news@inthecourier.com

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