City Council approved, in a first reading Sept.1, amendments to the city site plan ordinance that will allow multifamily projects with five or fewer units and affordable housing projects to move through the permitting process faster.

Codes and Planning Director Wayne Marshall's proposal streamlines the Planning Board's two-step process for evaluating permits by combining the steps. The first step determines whether the applicant has submitted the proper documentation and the second step considers the merits of the application.

Marshall and the Planning Board recommended these changes because of changes in state legislation and to allow affordable housing projects that have tight state application deadlines for housing credits to be reviewed faster to increase the chances of a Belfast housing development being selected.

The board recognizes there is a need for affordable housing in the city, and streamlining this process could bring more such developments to the area, Marshall said. The recommended process is similar to that used by the Department of Environmental Protection, and would better serve the density standards the city set in 2014.

A development still has the opportunity to go through the two-step process if it needs more time to submit its permits, he said. There will be only one public hearing for small housing projects and projects where less than 66% of the units will be for affordable housing.

The change, which was first discussed in June, comes on the heels of Developers Collaborative’s proposed affordable housing development at the old Public Works site, which has drawn some opposition from neighbors in the area. Marshall said Developers Collaborative will not use the changes and is still going through the two-step evaluation process.

Councilors have made affordable housing a priority and have been discussing a possible affordable housing project for the Congress Street site for a number of years.

Some councilors felt two public hearings favored opposition to projects, rather than support. Councilor Neal Harkness felt the second public hearing was not usually beneficial and more often than not, arguments from the first public hearing were usually just repeated, yielding little new relevant information on the subject.

“I’m very leery that we have created far too much balance for opposition to these things,” Councilor Mike Hurley said.

Hurley gave examples of opponents successfully blocking similar developments in certain neighborhoods by threatening to tie developers up in expensive litigation. He said he supports the change, but remains concerned that the process will be too easily taken advantage of by project opponents.

Marshall said a number of state and national agencies hold only one public hearing for important or controversial issues. He thinks having only one public hearing for small housing projects still gives the public an adequate chance to voice their opinions.

“I think the process that’s being suggested still creates good opportunities for public comment and to still try and recognize where an opponent is at, (while) being able to move the project forward,” he said.

Councilor Paul Dean said he thought it was important for the public to have two chances to speak about a project.

The amended ordinance also limits developers to start a project within five years after permit approval before the permits expire and the developer would have to start the permitting process over again.

A public hearing has been scheduled for the Oct. 6 City Council meeting.