AUGUSTA — Residents and some city councilors fear a zoning change proposed to make way for a businessman’s plans to process live mussels and breed tropical fish off Route 17 could blemish two-thirds of the city’s neighborhoods.
Meanwhile, others are concerned that rejecting the proposed zoning change could turn away jobs at a time when they’re desperately needed.
Following discussion at a City Council meeting Thursday night, officials and residents are no closer to agreeing on a solution.
Kevin Judkins, who lives directly across the street from the weekly classified publication Uncle Henry’s in a house that his grandfather built, warned against allowing an unknown business, such as aquaculture in that area, and potentially anywhere else in two-thirds of the city, without exploring the potential consequences.
“I urge you to take the time to be sure you don’t create a conflict where conflict does not now exist,” Judkins said. “Uncle Henry’s is a great neighbor as it is now. But how would you like to sit on your back deck, having a barbecue, with the smell of dead fish wafting through the air? I want to make sure that doesn’t happen.
City councilors asked the Planning Board to make a recommendation on the issue of aquaculture and the potential new business. It’s in anticipation of receiving a proposal to start a business that processes imported live mussels and raises tropical fish for resale.
Planners responded with two recommendations: That aquaculture be allowed as a conditional use in all areas where agriculture is already allowed, which would include about two-thirds of the city’s land area; and changing the zone of a portion of Route 17 in the area of Uncle Henry’s, where the business would be located, from a residential to a mixed-use zone in which light manufacturing and aquaculture would be allowed.
Some officials and residents say allowing an unknown business of aquaculture to be located in two-thirds of the city — including near residential neighborhoods — could have unforeseen consequences and doesn’t jibe with the city’s 2007 comprehensive plan.
“When people buy a home in a zone, they have an expectation it’s going to stay the same zone,” Councilor Patrick Paradis said during a lengthy heated debate on the issue at Thursday’s council meeting. “People make an investment in their homes and now we’re saying we’re going to allow light manufacturing right next to their home, and it’s a business we know nothing about. There hasn’t been due diligence that residents deserve.”
Paradis also pointed to a mineral situation off West River Road, in which Grandview neighborhood residents sparred with an asphalt plant after the city allowed a gravel pit near their neighborhood. That prompted months of contentious debate and the city ultimately changed the zoning of the area to ban asphalt plants.
“When I look at the track record with Grandview, if due diligence had been given to all the aspects of mineral extraction, we wouldn’t have had the problems we did,” Paradis said. “We’ve failed you before and if we rush into this, we’ll fail you again.”
Jeffrey L. Belanger, whose Route 17 home is near the proposed mussel and fish site, said the city already has industrial zones and business parks where such a business could be located. Why then would it be allowed in a rural residential area adjacent to some 25 homes, he asked.
Uncle Henry’s and land surrounding it is owned by Joseph Sutton, the businessman who hopes to open an indoor tropical fish breeding operation with between 200 and 400 individual small breeding tanks. Plans also call for an associated facility with large holding tanks that would process live mussels imported from Newfoundland for resale, according to city officials.
Sutton has not submitted an application for the project, but a representative of his has spoken to city planners about his plans.
Councilor David Rollins said he heard the business would bring 16 jobs. Rollins also said changing the zoning of the segment of Route 17 from rural residential to the mixed use planned development zone would also allow other landowners there, with Planning Board review, to start businesses in an area he described as unlikely to draw residential development.
He reminded his fellow city councilors they had agreed to a goal of working to be more business friendly.
Sutton could not be reached for comment and did not attend Thursday’s council meeting. Sutton has also not attended two Planning Board sessions held on the proposed zoning change.
Resident Carol Aft urged councilors to help Sutton find a different spot in Augusta for his new business if his land doesn’t seem suitable.
“If this piece doesn’t work out, what are you going to do to make sure we don’t lose these people, this business?” she said. “I’m asking this council to help them find the right parcel, if this is not the right one, to lure this business to Augusta, because we need jobs.”
Gary Hammond owns 10 acres in the area under consideration for rezoning, and said he’d like the option of starting a business on his land. He said the area is not likely to attract new residences.
“Everyone at the Planning Board meeting on this was supportive of the change,” Hammond said. “Everyone agreed this area is going to be business at some point anyway, so why not have it be a planned business section, instead of a free-for-all?”
Mayor William Stokes said the city needs more information and suggested city staff study the issue and report back. Stokes also suggested inviting Sutton, or his representative, to come explain his business proposal.
Judkins, who lives near Uncle Henry’s, urged city officials to consider other locations for the proposed fish and mussel business.
“Take the time to make sure, this time, it is done right,” he said.
Keith Edwards — 621-5647