2018-03-01 / News

Commission opposes zone change, UNE officials mum

By Grant McPherson
Staff Writer

BIDDEFORD – Conservation commission members will oppose the University of New England’s proposed zoning change at the planning board hearing in March after two months of delays.

Commission members met Thursday, Feb. 23 to discuss how best to oppose the university’s proposal to change current Limited Residential zoning to General Development 2-Institutional District. This zone is similar to General Development 1 but is used in areas, “where the pattern of development at the time of adoption is undeveloped or not as intensively developed as that of the General Development 1 District.” The area that the university would like to change consists of about 3,500 feet of shoreline, and commission members are concerned about the amount of development what would be allowed so close to the Saco River. Permitted activities in the General Development 1 and 2 Districts include manufacturing, fabricating or other industrial activities, wholesaling, warehousing, retail trade and service activities or other commercial activities and intensive recreational activities such as amusement parks, race tracks and fairgrounds.

The planning board will hold a public hearing on the proposed zoning change Wednesday, March 7. The purpose of the zoning change, according to the university, is to allow the construction of a waterfront park that includes a pavilion amphitheater and is within the current 100 foot setback under the Limited Residential zone. The new zoning would allow the pavilion to be built within 75 feet of the river. Alan Thibeault, assistant vice president for planning at the university, wrote in an email dated Feb. 2 to residents and city officials noting that the campus is not a residential property and the General Development 2 zone, “is more consistent with the uses and level of development on campus.”

Ken Buechs, vice chairman of the conservation commission, said at the meeting he doesn’t care what the university calls its zoning as long as the protective measures of Limited Residential remain in place. Commission member Susan Amons said the commission views the university as an asset to the community and supports its desire to improve the campus.

“We haven’t heard from anyone who doesn’t want the park,” she said. “It’s really not a problem. We do have a problem with changing the zoning on the whole shorefront to achieve 15 feet of shortage in a park.”

Sarah Delage, interim director of communications for University of New England, and Thibeault did not return a request for comment.

The commission has drafted a letter to present before the planning board that outlines both its support for the university’s waterfront park and its concerns over the proposed zoning change. Commission member Steven Reiter read a draft of the letter that states the importance of the Saco River not only as a source of drinking water but also as a natural habitat for fish, birds and other species and a support system for surrounding wetlands.

“Towns along the river are experiencing rapid population growth and increasing development pressure which threatens to destroy the quality of the river and the character of adjacent lands,” he said. “The Biddeford Conservation Commission exists to help protect, sustain and conserve water bodies like the Saco River.”

The planning board is also scheduled to discuss a site plan review for the university to build a softball field at 630 and 634 Pool St. The item is one of six pieces of new business the board is scheduled to discuss along with the zoning change. Commission members expressed concern that there may not be enough time to discuss the zoning change at length. The planning board meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. and board members are allowed to officially end the meeting at 9:30 p.m. Any item not heard will be rescheduled for the next meeting.

Amons said the commission still doesn’t understand why the university wants a zone change that permits such intense development and would feel better knowing the university’s long term plan. Buechs said he understands the university’s desire to change its zoning to more align with its stated purpose but disagrees with the direction.

“General development is as much a misnomer as the university’s contention that limited residential is,” he said. “A general development area is effectively a downtown with all the established mills and commercial structures of a downtown.”

Contact Staff Writer Grant McPherson at news@inthecourier.com

Return to top