Recently the Augusta City Council voted to enacted a moratorium in the West Side neighborhood. I feel it my duty to explain the action to our community.

A majority of councilors found it necessary to place a moratorium on the issuance of permits for boarding and rooming houses in order to give the city time to review the zoning ordinance and clarify relevant language. This matter will first be before the Planning Board for review and recommendations. I want to assure everyone there will be plenty of opportunity for public comment, both before the board and later before the council.

I am a professional real estate appraiser, and in the appraisal business when analyzing the best use of a property the first question is whether the property use is legally permissible. Maine law is very clear on zoning. A municipal zoning ordinance may provide for any form of zoning consistent with state law, as long as the public is given an opportunity to be heard on the matter and the ordinance is consistent with the city’s comprehensive plan.

Maine law has provided for some years that a zoning ordinance must reflect the comprehensive plan adopted by the municipal legislative body. The requirement appears in 30-A MRSA Section 4352(2), and the Maine Supreme Judicial Court has backed it up. This is existing law.

Therefore, before zoning could be established, the city of Augusta had to adopt a comprehensive plan. That plan was initially established in the 1980s. By state law this plan must be reviewed every 10 or so years and routinely updated. Our current plan, adopted in 2006, was the result of extensive public input by hundreds of citizens. Every area, district, neighborhood and arterial roadway is mentioned in the plan.

I want to assure all the residents of Augusta that nothing about our comprehensive plan is recent and nothing about our clarification of our zoning will involve new regulations. Anything and everything that gets clarified or added to the existing ordinance must flow from the 2006 comprehensive plan. It is not uncommon, when it comes to zoning, for language to lie dormant until an issue arises and brings focus to specific aspects of the land use code. This is the case in the zoning districts the council has requested the Planning Board review. And the reason for the moratorium is to ensure there are no unintended consequences for property buyers and sellers, or to the uses allowed in the neighborhood.

Within the West Side neighborhood the comprehensive plan is clear. It states, “Carefully crafted design criteria, addressing both the building and the site, will ensure that non-residential uses allowed in residential areas will have little or no impact on the neighboring residences or neighborhood environment.”

Further, the plan discusses two examples, “The west side residential district is broken into a number of distinct sub-districts that are either primarily non-residential or primarily residential. The interface of these sub-districts is a place for careful compromise where existing residential uses may be converted to commercial, but only if care is taken that other adjacent residential uses are minimally impacted. For example, existing residences directly on Western Avenue should be allowed to convert to commercial uses, provided that adequate mitigation of the impacts of the new commercial use is ensured for adjacent residential uses. As another example, Winthrop Street has a number of offices on its lower section. These offices should not be allowed to convert to a more intense non-residential use, but may be converted to a residential use if desired. Each case will need careful consideration of specific surrounding conditions.”

This is our existing comprehensive plan, as required by state law.

It will be the task of the Planning Board to review the pertinent zoning ordinances provisions to clarify definitions and to make sure the ordinances are pursuant to and consistent with the comprehensive plan, as required. Clearly, it was imperative we stop issuing permits until we review and clarify our existing zoning ordinance. If we fail to do this, or failed to enact the current moratorium, we put Augusta residences, taxpayers, and all entities wishing to buy or sell in the affected zones at risk.

In the quest to create consistent zoning, all sides have “special interests.”

I recognize the legitimate points of view on all sides of this discussion. A group discussion of stakeholders is being arranged. It is my sincere objective to find a community-based plan to craft a solution for our greater good. The bottom line for our land use ordinance is that, is so doing, we not fail to follow our comprehensive plan.

David Rollins is the mayor of Augusta.

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