News Feature

Originally published in Island Ad-Vantages, November 2, 2017
Comp plan sets goals, identifies rural and growth areas

by Rich Hewitt

The town of Stonington’s proposed comprehensive plan sets out a bold capital improvement plan for the next decade and identifies rural areas in the town as well as areas for future growth. About 40 people turned out last week to review the details of the plan which includes a $3.1 million prioritized capital spending budget for the next 10 years. Among the big ticket items on that list are increasing the water company capacity, $700,000; reconstructing Bayview Street, $500,000; relocating the fire house, $500,000; constructing a salt storage shed, $400,000; increasing fisherman access to the shore, $250,000; and improving the town’s transfer station, $250,000.

Bob Gerber, the planner who shepherded the process through a series of meetings that began last summer, said that these planned improvements will be funded through borrowing, bonding and the town’s existing reserve funds.

A capital spending plan was among the items the state requires be included in the plan, as was the establishment of growth and rural areas. The three items are linked since the areas identified as rural and growth areas are where the town indicates it will spend 75 percent of its capital improvement funds.

Although the state requires the town to designate those areas and create a capital spending plan to fund activities in those areas, Gerber said the plan is not set in stone.

The plan identifies priorities for future actions, Gerber said, and those priorities can change over a decade.

The state also requires a five-year review of the plan at which time the town can reassess spending priorities.

According to Gerber, the state has strict specifications for the types of land that must be included in a rural area, but stressed that this inclusion does not mean new zoning.

“The committee did not want any new zoning,” he said. “The designation just provides extra protection for rural areas. Fortunately, the town already has areas that are protected either by regulations or by conservation easements. We didn’t have to create any new ordinance to protect them. They’re already protected.”

Gerber said that approximately half the town already is in conservation or protected by the National Resource Protection Act or other legislation.

The growth area identifies an area or areas in town where the town wants or expects future growth to occur. The plan identifies two areas: the downtown area including the area out toward the boatyard, and an area near the airport, including town-owned property, and extending along Airport Road to Route 15, including the Island Medical Center. In response to questions, Selectman Evelyn Duncan said that while there may not be physical growth at the medical center, there may be a future need for telecommunications there. The plan includes the town center as well as the Airport Road because the high speed connections come down the back side of the island. In order to extend that capability to the medical center, it would have to be run along Airport Road.

The committee focused future growth around the airport ,anticipating the potential to create a small business park in that area, with the proximity of an airport, even a small one, being an attraction for some businesses. The growth area also could accommodate the development of housing, particularly affordable housing and housing for seasonal employees, as well as infrastructure improvements such as road improvements.

Selectman John Steed asked, if the plan is approved, “what can’t we do that we can do now?”

“This [the plan] doesn’t prohibit anything,” Gerber said. “There are a few suggestions to adjust ordinances. Those are the things that will create prohibition or additional permitting requirements. The plan itself doesn’t do that.”

One such change, which Gerber indicated might be controversial, would require a permit for demolition in the town’s historic area. The new permit process would require that the Maine Historic Preservation Commission be notified of any planned demolition in the historic area. The change does not empower that commission to block the demolition, but gives that agency the opportunity to help save the building.

“They can’t stop it, but they want an opportunity to comment on it,” Gerber said. “Sometimes they can come up with grant money to help save the building. It gives them the opportunity to save the building before it gets torn down.”

Billings said the new permit process will help the town which currently doesn’t have any protection to keep something massive from going up to the transfer station. Adding a permit process also gives the town the opportunity to address that issue.

The capital spending plan and identifying the growth and rural areas were among the “high points” included at the hearing. According to Gerber, about 95 percent of the proposed plan is information, much of it supplied by the state. Each item in the inch-thick printed plan is something the state required.

In the 5 percent that is not statistics and demographics and maps, there is a summary of future challenges facing the town. Most of those challenges are reflected in some of the state data and in a survey of town residents. Those challenges include population decline; school population decline; the need for low-income, moderate-income, and workforce housing; the need to increase the water supply to the village area; the need to diversify the economy; general infrastructure upgrades; conflict between tourists and fishermen in the village area—not enough waterfront to satisfy all needs; planning for sea level rise; and financing large capital improvements.

Resident Nat Barrows asked how long the comment period would be on the plan and urged the selectmen to wait for a town vote until the annual town meeting in March.

“This is a big deal and I urge you to put it on a regular town meeting [warrant] that would give an opportunity for as many people as possible to vote on this and be a part of it,” he said. “It should be at the March town meeting.”

The official comment period ended with the hearing, said Gerber, but residents can comment when the selectmen discuss it before they send it to the state.

Duncan, however, said she thought the selectmen could wrap up their work on the plan by their mid-month meeting in November. She said she favored a special town meeting.

The selectmen can make changes to the document based on the comments at the hearing before they vote to approve it and send it to the state. State approval could take as long as 90 days, possibly longer. Although Gerber said he is confident that the plan will meet state approval, he added that there is a risk in having a town vote on the plan before the state approves it. The town approved its current comprehensive plan before receiving state approval and the state then rejected it. One of the reasons for updating the plan was because the town learned it is ineligible for certain state and federal grant programs because it does not have an approved plan.

The selectmen will discuss the comprehensive plan at their next meeting on November 6. Duncan suggested that they could vote on the plan as early as their next scheduled meeting after that.