2018-02-15 / News

Residents continue push back of zone change at UNE

By Grant McPherson
Staff Writer

BIDDEFORD – A snowstorm cancelled the planning board meeting where officials would have discussed a University of New England zoning change request, a move that residents and conservationists have questioned.

The University of New England proposed amending the city’s ordinance to create a General Development 2 Institutional District in Tax Map 52, Lot 4, currently zoned as Limited Residential. The new zoning would permit the university to construct any new structures within 75 feet of the Saco River, as opposed to 100 feet as it is now. The university wants to build a pavilion within the current setback. Neighboring residents are concerned that the new zoning would allow increased development on land bordering the Saco River.

The planning board was supposed to send a recommendation to the council after meeting in January, but tabled the issue due to a number of responses from residents who expressed opposition. City Planner Greg Tansley wrote in an email that he isn’t sure yet if the university’s request will appear on the planning board meeting rescheduled for Wednesday, Feb. 21.

Hills Beach resident Kyle Noble emailed city officials in January and wrote that the university tried to rush the zoning change and should wait until more residents were home for the summer.

“The other concern is that a general development zone is usually reserved for more urban areas,” he said. “It generally allows for more dense development and larger buildings and it would carry behind it a body of law that we haven’t discussed or the potential ramifications for what this zone change could really mean.”

Ken Buechs, vice chairman of the Biddeford Conservation Commission, said the proposed zone change would allow for taller buildings and less ground available to absorb runoff that will eventually flow into the river. The commission voted unanimously Monday, Feb. 5 to oppose the university’s proposed amendment. Buechs said he’d rather see the university build the pavilion with respect to the 100-foot setback and not change the zoning.

“That’s kind of our position as a conservation commission,” he said. “Change the shape or push it back within the waterfront park proposal and you don’t need a zoning change and you don’t need to encourage all of these concerns for the Saco River. We’ve got some responsibility to protect a piece of property such as this, the Saco River being a high asset to the city of Biddeford and of the conservation commission. The effort to clean up the Saco River has been longstanding decades of work. We are determined to look at any activity or movement to jeopardize that work.”

Alan Thibeault is assistant vice president for planning at the University of New England and is overseeing the proposed zoning change. While he did not respond to a request for comment, he emailed Noble, Buechs, Tansley, Mayor Alan Casavant and City Manager Jim Bennett Friday, Feb. 2 to reiterate the university’s position.

“The university will continue to seek a shoreland overlay zoning amendment to get the proper designation for its land along the Saco River,” he wrote. “It is our position that the current Limited Residential Shoreland Overlay Zone is inappropriate and that the General Development 2 Institutional Shoreland Overlay Zone is more consistent with the uses and level of development on campus. I think all involved would agree that the UNE campus is not a residential property.”

Noble, who has lived in the area for about 20 years, said the university is an asset to the community but doesn’t see why it can’t conform to current setback standards. He said it’s not the first time residents who live near the university have spoken out against development.

“Two years ago the university proposed building a sewer treatment plant next to the edge of campus against the Hills Beach neighborhood,” he said. “They approached the city to get that approved and that again was attempting to overturn neighborhood concessions and protections put into the zone. They were ultimately forced to forget about it but it was presumptuous of them to even have proposed it. We would have insisted on a similar process if they had persisted in their request after objections started flowing in. We would have insisted on reopening the negotiation process. That’s where we should be headed now.”

Buechs said he and fellow commissioner Susan Amons walked along the shore where the university hopes to rezone to get a better idea of the land in question. He said he agrees the university helps the local economy but the future implications of the zoning change are difficult to know.

“The beauty is just stark there,” Buechs said. “Both if you’re on a boat looking back at the shore or on land. It’s just incredible. It’s untouched today. It borders on a lot of residential property that’s just beyond university property lines so this is a bigger picture than simply rezoning.”

Noble said he’d like to see a committee formed to discuss the rezoning and an affirmation from the university that it will protect coastal lands.

“I for one am not in favor of sacrificing the entire buffer that was put in along the riverfront,” he said. “Not only is it a buffer for runoff, it’s a buffer for noise, it’s a protection of the riverfront and lots of people receive benefit from it now. Once it’s gone, if buildings are put all along there, it’s just another urbanized area.”

Contact Staff Writer Grant McPherson at news@inthecourier.com

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