My little town of Yarmouth, Maine, is situated in the shelter of Casco Bay some 10 miles northeast of Portland. If you get trapped in the passing lane on Interstate 295 and miss our exit (Exit 15), you have one more chance before you pass us by completely, two miles up the road at Exit 17. About 8500 of us live in this hamlet of a bit more than 13 square miles of land, including two islands connected by bridge to the mainland.
Most of us Y-Towners live on the mainland, where the population density is quite high for a town in Maine. Up the road in Brunswick, home to Bowdoin College, they have a density of 1,045 people per square mile of land area, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. Our density here in Y-Town is 1,123 ppm2. In Westbrook, the “Paper City” mill town where I grew up just west of Portland, the density is 1,021 ppm2. Freeport’s density is 865 ppm2 and most of Falmouth is 757 ppm2.
So Yarmouth is geographically compact and densely populated relative to our state and our county. According to our 2010 Comprehensive Plan, “The 1970s and 80s were a period of rapid residential growth in Yarmouth …. The population of Yarmouth grew by more than 60% over those two decades while the number of housing units almost doubled.”
We’re one of the households that moved here in the 80s (1983 to be precise, when I was barely two years out of Bowdoin), for the low taxes and the easy commute either to Portland or to the Brunswick/Bath area. An oil-fired power plant called Wyman Station on Cousins Island paid most of the town’s taxes in those days; its value has all but evaporated since then, and now the burden to support our Town and schools falls mainly on the residents.
As I noted in my previous post, today people are attracted to Yarmouth for our high performing schools and our quaint Main Street. They also love our vista of Casco Bay from the Cousins Island bridge, and yes, that easy commute in either direction on Interstate 295. We’re still adding about 20 dwelling units a year, down from the 80 units a year when I moved here in the 80s and down from the 40 units a year we added in the 90s, but still adding.
Increased density next to the River?
All good planners want to direct where the growth should go, and what it should look like. Maine state law tells towns like Yarmouth that we must establish a Comprehensive Plan designating resource protection areas and growth areas. Being a well-managed Town, we do what the state tells us to do. So we adopted a Comprehensive Plan in 1993 and updated it in 2010. We’re due for another update by 2022.
Meanwhile, we’re struggling with how to implement the Plan we established in 2010. Real estate values are high, thanks to our combination of a desired location and limited new construction. Any patch of land that’s legally buildable is a lure to builders and speculators. When existing houses turn over, the sellers are commanding high prices. School buildings that in 2010 were expected to accommodate the student population for the foreseeable future are running out of space, an indication that we’re no longer able to absorb our growth, not even at the slow pace of the last few years.
Nevertheless we’re supposed to have a plan for growth, and we do have one, on paper anyway. The dilemma is how to translate the vague happy talk of the Comprehensive Plan into an executable, enforceable regulating plan – an ordinance – that property owners, residents, and business owners can support.
Our Town Council appointed a committee to help the Town implement the Plan. The idea is to increase residential density in the Village while protecting its character. The Village: you know, the area within a five minute stroll of our very special Main Street, so walkable and charming. Right?
Um, not so fast.
For some reason, the authors of the Comprehensive Plan used an expanded definition of the Village to include residential neighborhoods more than a mile and half away from Main Street amenities. This is well beyond the normal planners’ “Pedestrian Shed” of a quarter mile radius, as shown in this graphic from the February draft of the Character Based Development Code.
Did the neighborhoods know that? Maybe we should have, but the truth is we didn’t. When we heard that planners were seeking the public’s input on a proposed Character Based Development Code for the Village, we might have thought, oh cool, Main Street; now where’s Susie’s soccer schedule? We definitely did not think, wait, what? this applies to my street; who’m I gonna call?
Well, now the word is out that the plan for regulating the Village encompasses pretty much all the residential parts of Yarmouth except the areas currently zoned for low density and rural residential. See the area within the black outline shown here.
My previous post focused on the disconnect between the “form” standards in the Code and actual buildings as they exist in our neighborhoods today. (See an update at the end of this post). Here I’ll focus on how the plan would accomplish the increased density objective.
Two words: lot splitting.
The Character-Based Development Code (CBDC) will replace current zoning ordinances in the section of Yarmouth outlined above. The CBDC will allow fill-in housing not only on vacant lots but also on tiny new, city-sized lots split from normal lots that already have houses on them, after creating new frontage via a lane constructed into the property.
People’s back yards will be sprouting houses.
Here’s a backyard behind a big old house not too far from Main Street. There might be room to place two buildings on it.
Minimum lot sizes are going away. Instead there will be a series of setbacks that have to be met. Someone developing the above lot could do something like this on it, with the frontage on the pictured street:
Okay, that’s in the proposed CD3-T zone, pretty close to the actual Village, so maybe it’s not so wacky, except for the complete lack of a setback from the street. Well, to be accurate, maybe a six foot setback from the street:
Note that if this were a corner lot, the building need be only two feet away from the side street.
Given those side setback minimums of 10 feet, the lot probably has room for two stand-alone houses or duplexes and an alley between them, cut in from the pictured street.
Put it this way: if you like the occasional graceful lawn and garden space flowing from some of our wonderful old houses, better take pictures of them now, because they’re going down the memory hole if CBDC goes through. The financial incentive of windfall gains from lot splitting will be hard for owners or their heirs to resist.
I live a bit more than a mile from Main Street, and it’s a completely different vibe out here in our non-village part of the “Village.” We all have good-sized yards to enjoy. No pop-up play areas for the kids needed here, thank you very much. Under current zoning, to divide a parcel and put a house on it you need a full acre. Most of the existing parcels (with or without houses) are less than an acre, grandfathered and “non-conforming.” But we’re aware of the one acre minimum for a new house lot, and we factor it into our expectations about what can go on around us.
There are a few subdivisions within the expanded “Village” where deeded covenants are in place to protect home owners from quirky neighbors doing quirky things with their property. Not so for the rest of us; we rely on the law, in the form of zoning ordinances, to regulate what people can do on the lots in our neighborhoods.
A satellite view of our end of town shows more trees than buildings. Apparently this is exactly what the urban planners need for accomplishing their objective of increased density. Punching in a new lane off North Road can provide the frontage needed to split off four house lots seen in this view:
I don’t have the dimensions of the lots, but let’s assume they’re fairly narrow. Under the CBDC standards, a developer could place the new houses right on each lot’s side property line, a placement known as a “sideyard.”
It’s all about character, you see.
Now look at these potential fill-in lots off North Road, all permitted under the CBDC:
Most of the outlined lots don’t have frontage now, and none of them have the current one acre minimum. Fake roads would provide the frontage, and lot size would be defined by these standards:
Ah, that’s North Road: plenty of land, deer frolicking, rabbits peering through the grass, it’s inevitable that it will be sold off and built upon, right? But with this degree of density? No.
Well, the next example isn’t on North Road. It’s a block that’s already built out, and the lots are all non-conforming, less than one acre, with homes already on them. But hey! there’s always room for more houses! The potential lots outlined in yellow are just a sample of the lots that could be squeezed onto this one residential block under the proposed Code. Trees are so country. Think urban!
Now take a drive along East Elm Street toward the V with North Road and try to imagine all the city-sized house lots and lanes that could be carved out of the countryside. Do the same in other parts of town, anywhere there are house lots with a little extra space.
You might ask, as I and others have been asking, how does this stuff improve Yarmouth’s quality of place? A fair number of us moved here to get out of a city and away from city-sized lots. The implementation group would say they’re simply trying to follow the Comprehensive Plan. But note that the Comprehensive Plan merely suggests we look into increased density in the MDR zone and “Form Based Codes” as an alternative to traditional zoning; it’s not a mandate.
Of all the perplexing statements in the Comprehensive Plan, this one on Page 46 bugs me the most:
The areas immediately outside of the Village Residential area that experienced “lower density” suburban style residential development should be reclaimed as part of the Village. Within these moderate density areas, more dense development should be allowed as long as it maintains and reinforces the Village character.
Reclaimed? When I look up “reclaim” in the dictionary here’s what I get:
Given these definitions, I’m inferring that the well-meaning authors of the Comprehensive Plan thought that Melissa Drive and Rogers Road and Oakwood and Essex Drive (and so on) all need to be rescued from their undesirable state as suburban-style residential neighborhoods. I think they were wrong to imply that, and the good Lord knows I’m not afraid to say so.
By the way, the CBDC is still just a draft, and the implementation group wants Y-Towners to help them make it better. You can believe we will see it changed before it becomes official.
Now for an update on my last blog post.
By way of the Town Planner I got a response from a consulting architect about the home designs I contended could not be built under the standards of the proposed CBDC. Sure they could, she insisted. They’d just have to add a door to the front facade or turn the building on the lot, or turn the garage and move the driveway, etc.
In other words, they could NOT be built the way they are.
As for the mandate that every building have a door facing the street, that’s to make it a welcoming sight to pedestrians who might happen by.
Here’s an example of an actual building being erected in accordance with the character based standards dictated by the CBDC, already in effect on Route One:
Now here’s my friend’s house, so offending to the new Code:
Which of these seems more welcoming?