Castine to Vote on Ordinance Changes to Spur Affordable Housing

Article excerpt

CASTINE, Maine -- Residents here will vote Nov. 6 on two new ordinance packages aimed in part at facilitating the development of affordable housing.

The two referendums -- Questions 1 and 2 -- ask voters to enact new subdivision and zoning ordinances for the town. Many of the changes from the current documents are cosmetic and semantic, aimed at clearing up cumbersome language and bringing the town's ordinances into line with state rules.

But other provisions, which have drawn some criticism from residents, according to Town Manager Dale Abernethy, ease zoning regulations on minimum lot sizes for affordable housing developments. The subdivision ordinance also gives a 25 percent bonus to the number of lots that can be created via subdivision for affordable housing clusters.

The changes address one of the core goals for Castine's future, Abernethy said. Like other small, coastal towns, property values are high, he said. The high cost of living and the lack of employment opportunities mean Castine has a hard time attracting young, working families, he said.

"Why would they pay some given price for a house and face a 35- mile commute to Bangor [for work]?" Abernethy asked.

As Castine ages, Abernethy said, and more longtime residents leave the town or move in with children, most houses are bought by out-of-state residents who turn the Castine homes into summer residences. Abernethy said two of the three neighboring houses at his first home in town, on Court Street, have been bought by families from New York and Pennsylvania.

"That's fewer able-bodied volunteers for our fire department," he said. "It's fewer kids on our little school here."

That's where the zoning changes come in. Lowering housing costs could entice young families with children to Castine, Abernethy said. The change that would have the biggest impact involves minimum lot size calculation. A single-family home lot in Castine must be at least two acres. Usually, undevelopable wetland acreage cannot count toward this requirement. So a two-acre lot with one acre of wetland doesn't meet the requirement.

The new zoning rules would lift that restriction, allowing affordable housing lots to include wetland toward its minimum lot size requirement. So the same two-acre, half wetland, lot above would be acceptable for lower-cost homes.

A change to the subdivision ordinance would give affordable- housing subdivisions a 25 percent boost in the number of units that could be placed in cluster developments. Where subdivision would allow for 4 units on a subdivided 8-acre lot -- one each on half- acre division, with the remaining six acres undeveloped and preserved -- affordable housing would get a bonus fifth unit.

The provisions have their share of detractors, Abernethy said. In town meetings on the referendums, some residents said they didn't want the affordable housing incentives in the ordinances, he said. …