WATERVILLE — On the north side of the eastern end of Kennedy Memorial Drive there are a few offices and a florist, mixed in with modest single-story homes and a few multi-family apartment buildings.

Across the four-lane road is a commercial area, with a strip mall, a drive-through coffee shop, an oil change garage and other businesses.

The recent controversy about a proposed 24-hour car wash on the north side of the road has drawn attention to the unique land-use zone on the northern side of Kennedy Memorial Drive between First Rangeway and Cool Street.

The 200-foot-wide block between the road and parallel Merryfield Avenue is an island zoned for small commercial use between the more massive commercial zone across the street and the residential area behind it.

The unique zone was created almost 20 years ago to accommodate increased traffic along Kennedy Memorial Drive in what at the time was a residential zone.

Although some businesses have moved into the smaller commercial zone since then, property owners complain that restrictions to development and opposition from residents of the nearby neighborhood make developing the area a challenge.

“It’s an empty lot I can’t do anything with,” said Leland Bard, a property owner who has been trying to sell two lots in the contract zone since it was created.

In an August letter to the City Council, Bard said he has had a number of serious offers for the property, including Bangor Savings Bank and Family Dollar, but all pulled out of their offers because of the zoning restrictions and resistance from nearby residents.

In his letter, Bard asked the Planning Board and the City Council to consider rezoning the area as a purely commercial zone to create “consistent zoning” on one of Waterville’s main business thoroughfares and “lift some of the excessive restrictions that make it commercially undesirable.”

But others, including Planning Board Chairman David Geller, said the way the area is zoned is necessary to protect property owners on Merryfield Avenue and is permissive enough to allow appropriate buildings to be developed.

“The contract zone has limitations. If you want to call that a challenge, so be it,” Geller said.

“No one is saying you can’t use that land for commercial purposes,” he added.

‘TOUGH PLACE TO LIVE’

Interstate 95 cut through the west end of Waterville in the 1960s, and what’s now I-95’s exit 127 opened Kennedy Memorial Drive to commercial development.

Before 1997, however, the half-mile strip less than a mile to the east was a residential zone that allowed small home businesses but no commercial development.

In anticipation of substantial growth of traffic on the road after the construction of a second bridge over the Kennebec River along Carter Memorial Drive, however, the City Council rezoned the area as a contract zone for general commercial use, including hotels, convenience stores, restaurants, parking lots, apartments, retail stores and offices.

The new zone for those in the residential zone between First Rangeway and Cool Street expressly prohibited warehouses, gas stations and bus terminals and also required screening and setbacks to protect residents of the neighborhood on Merryfield Avenue.

A “contract zone” is one in which the current property owner is bound to certain restrictions on the property, but if a business developer comes in who will abide by those restrictions, the property can be rezoned.

The purpose of a contract zone is to “provide for the reasonable regulation of uses of land and structures where competing and incompatible uses conflict,” according to the city’s zoning ordinance.

The business uses allowed are similar to those in other areas in the city zoned commercial A, particularly Main Street downtown.

Since the zoning change, the strip of Kennedy Memorial Drive remains largely residential, dotted with a few businesses, including a United Way office, a florist, a chiropractor and an audiologist, peppered among the small bungalows.

Even though most of the property is still residential, the area has lost its appeal for homebuyers because of the traffic and noise from Kennedy Memorial Drive, said Don Plourde, a real estate agent who has been trying to sell Bard’s property.

Houses on the stretch still sell, but not for much. The last house that sold in the area went for $30,000 at most, he added.

“It’s a tough place to live with all that traffic on the road now,” he said.

Plourde, like Bard, his client, would prefer to see the area rezoned as a commercial space. It’s one of the few areas left in the city close to a major thoroughfare — the west end of the road, less than a mile away, has access to Interstate 95 — that hasn’t been developed, he said.

“I really think that the whole strip should be zoned commercial. It’s the highest use of that property,” Plourde said.

“There are no other spots available with that kind of traffic. That’s where commercial businesses want to be,” he added. About 18,000 vehicles travel on Kennedy Memorial Drive daily.

Offices fit well in the zone, but with the glut of office space in Waterville, there is little interest in new building, Plourde added.

HOPES DASHED

Jerald Hurdle, whose proposal to rezone the former A.L. Weeks & Sons auto repair for a 24-hour car wash was turned down by the City Council last month, said he invested $200,000 in the property and now has nothing to show for it.

Hurdle’s proposal to have the site rezoned was turned town after residents of Merryfield Avenue came out in opposition to the plan.

Before moving forward with his plan, Hurdle was told there would be “a couple of zoning issues but nothing of this magnitude, or I wouldn’t have done it,” he said.

He isn’t sure what he’ll end up doing with the property.

Bard said he sympathizes with Hurdle’s situation. He and his wife, Fern, bought their Kennedy Memorial Drive property in the 1970s as an investment.

The idea was that they could sell the land to a developer when the area became more commercial, Fern Bard said.

“It hasn’t worked out like that,” she added.

Two years ago, the Bards successfully rezoned two lots they own on Kennedy Memorial Drive and Carver Street, but not without restrictions and the involvement of residents of Merryfield Avenue who said they didn’t want exits onto their street. The residents said they would support office space, a bank or retail stores on the property.

“That’s the only thing you can do, build an office that will close at night,” Bard said.

But Geller, the Planning Board chairman, said the contract zone is appropriate for regulating the type of businesses that go into the sensitive residential area.

“There are the same issues that existed at the time it was contract-zoned,” Geller said. If a property owner wants to develop a property, the owner should consider the approved uses beforehand, not expect to have it rezoned to fit the owner’s purposes, he said.

“People can’t just do things hoping that zoning designations will change,” Geller said. “Even if it is the best idea since sliced bread, it’s not fair to abutters if they oppose it.”

The idea of rezoning the entire area is contrary to practice, wherein rezoning is done at an owner’s request, Geller added.

“The city rezoning parcels on its own without a landowner’s request is backwards. It’s not the way it is supposed to work,” Geller said.

But the city may be edging toward a broader debate about the future of the Kennedy Memorial Drive contract zone.

Mayor Nick Isgro said this week that he has had informal discussions with the city manager and some councilors about forming a committee to take a look at the area and “really determine the best use for it,” taking into account the residential neighborhood.

“I think we do need to look at that zone as a whole,” Isgro said.

Peter McGuire — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: PeteL_McGuire

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