The problem is process

It seems to me that turning the old Peirce School in Belfast into housing is a perfect use for that building. It is already in a neighborhood and the historic exterior would be preserved. There is plenty of space for off-street parking and an open front lot that could be landscaped and be a lovely addition. What would be a better zoning for it — commercial or industrial?

It’s just the kind of housing, location, and price range we need in Belfast for working people and retirees who are downsizing. Restrictions could be made to not allow short-term rentals. Those who say that rentals mean people living there are more likely to engage in criminal activity are prejudiced and wrong, and they should apologize publicly.

The problem isn’t the project; it’s the process. As a 35-year abutter to the hospital, I know that by the time the public officially hears about  a project, it is too late to make any real changes. I consider myself lucky if I get some lighting restrictions or a couple of trees at the Planning Board meeting for a new hospital parking lot. There is no way in the current process to have community discussions about a proposed idea before the specific plans are drawn up and the contractors are waiting in the wings.

Compounding the problem these days is “spot zoning,” which allows the five-member council to be the last word for zoning changes anywhere in the city. It is capricious, undemocratic, and allows a small group to choose winners and losers. Although the council must listen to public opponents, there is no stipulation that it must take into account anything the public says. And there’s nothing to stop it from coming to your neighborhood.

This is exactly what happened when this closed group turned 98 acres of rural and residential zones in the Little River area into an industrial zone. Even with hundreds of pages of testimony and hundreds of hours of comments questioning the Nordic project, the council made only fingernail concessions. Although almost a third of the votes in the recent elections were for opposition candidates, the council is still on the same track.

Add to that the fact that the city hijacked the existing Comprehensive Plan and did a sleight-of-hand with a new one, bypassing the legal process.

Belfast is expanding at a fast pace. We need to put a moratorium on new zoning changes until a new comprehensive plan can be developed through the state-mandated process of community input. Yes, this will take time and slow things down, but we need to get ahead of the curve, not behind it. It’s too important for the future quality of life in Belfast.

Linda Buckmaster