GARDINER — A city committee approved a proposed policy Monday that provides the opportunity for businesses and developers to convert larger and older buildings in residential neighborhoods to some commercial uses.
The change would allow some commercial uses in industrial or institutional buildings, such as former churches or schools, in the high-density residential zone.
The goal is to create a process to give the city more authority to ease zoning restrictions when it makes sense for the greater good of the community without risking the character of the neighborhoods, said Nate Rudy, director of economic and community development for the city.
The Planning Board will review the ordinance changes at its Tuesday, May 13, meeting, and if it approves them, the changes will go to City Council on May 14.
The consultant who helped draft the proposed policy, Mark Eyerman, said it’s fairly restrictive, but the city could later decide to loosen the restrictions or scrap the policy, depending on how well it works.
“This is really cracking the door. … If you do it right, there will be other opportunities, and if you don’t do it right, I’m guessing the door will close pretty quickly,” said Eyerman, president of Planning Decisions, at the Ordinance Review Committee’s meeting Monday.
The adaptive reuse overlay district would give the city the framework to allow building reuse on a case-by-case basis. It could only be used for buildings that are no longer economically viable or physically suitable for uses allowed in the districts in which they’re located.
The buildings that would be eligible for the reuse process must be at least 30 years old and have been used primarily for nonresidential purposes in the years since 2000 that it was occupied. It also must have at least 3,500 square feet of livable space and not be in an area that would be disrupted by the vehicle traffic from the new use.
The proposed update to the comprehensive plan, which go to public hearing Thursday, May 8, recommends finding a way to deal with larger, older buildings with original uses that don’t fit in residential neighborhoods.
This policy, however, was fast-tracked before the comprehensive plan was officially approved partly because there’s a proposed business that needs zoning changes to operate in a former church.
Developers of a hard cider brewery hope to locate in the former Gardiner Congregational Church on Church Street, but current zoning rules don’t allow it.
David Boucher, of New Harbor, said he’s hoping to open his cidery, Lost Orchard Brewing, by the Fourth of July, but it’s not clear when the city will approve the policy or if it will be too restrictive for him to locate in Gardiner.
He said he and his girlfriend, Kristina Nugent, have already signed a purchase-and-sale agreement with the church, but they can withdraw from it if the city doesn’t approve the proposed use. The performance bond required by the proposed policy may also add too much of a cost to the project, Boucher said.
He said they have another building in Bristol Mills lined up if the Congregational church doesn’t work. However, he said he hopes they are able to locate in the church and restore the building.
“We’re just playing the waiting game right now. It’s been a long process with Gardiner,” Boucher said.
The process for adaptive would be similar to the site review the Planning Board already does for large businesses, Rudy said. If the Planning Board approves a reuse proposal, it would then go to City Council for review.
The proposed changes would only apply for institutional and industrial buildings located in the high-density residential zone. But Rudy said he would like to see it expanded to other districts and to residences if it’s successful.
It limits the allowed reuse to around a dozen options including banks, research facilities, funeral homes, restaurants, retailers, light manufacturing and artist studios.
Rudy said this will allow the city to increase its tax base by attracting new development and to preserve older buildings that may fall in disrepair if left vacant.
“We want to preserve what we have and reuse whenever possible. That’s the way, I think, most folks in Maine think,” he said.
Members of the Ordinance Review Committee were supportive of the proposal.
Clare Marron, a committee member and owner an art gallery and retail store downtown, said the not maintaining old buildings is harmful to the residential neighborhoods.
“These building that we’re talking about are most in danger of falling down, and it’s a burden on the neighborhood having a building falling down,” Marron said.
Deborah Willis, chairwoman of the committee, said she hopes it will allow the city to be responsive when people come forward with proposals to reuse old buildings.
“I think it’s a big-picture approach to being able to work with some unique properties in the city,” she said.