BELFAST — Councilors approved the first reading of ordinance amendments for rural areas of the city March 1. The changes affect nearly 80% of the land in Belfast, according to project planner Wayne Marshall.

The changes are intended to further councilors’ goal of increasing housing opportunities in the city. Even though two new income-based affordable housing projects have recently been completed and another is in progress here, the city still struggles with available housing. Most of the zoning changes are based on direction from the Future Land Use section of the Comprehensive Plan.

The amendments establish seven new zoning districts, repeal seven existing districts and change the boundaries of four existing districts, Marshall said. The four districts with changed boundaries do not have any new use or dimensional standards.

The recommended changes, coming from the Planning Board, help create opportunities for the construction of more housing than what is currently allowed, he said. In most districts, the changes allow the construction of triplexes or fourplexes on land with disposal systems like a septic tank, which current ordinances do not allow.

The amendments establish a new type of housing approach the Planning and Codes Office is calling “flex housing,” Marshall said. This gives property owners more options as to how many apartment units and buildings can be constructed based on lot size, and how wastewater, public sewer or on-site septic systems are managed.

Some new zoning districts with access to public sewer could have a density of up to 12 apartment units per acre, he said. Multifamily housing projects and most flex housing projects will require Planning Board review and approval.

In February 2021, the Planning Board stepped up its efforts to develop zoning and ordinance changes to better accommodate multifamily housing projects in most areas of the city. City Council approved ordinance changes for five city districts at an Aug. 3, 2021, meeting.

The city had been working on ways to encourage new housing until the Planning Board focused its energy on reviewing Nordic Aquafarms’ application for a land-based salmon farm starting in 2019, which was a very involved process. Permits were finally approved in late 2020.

Councilor Mike Hurley said he supported  the changes and that the motivation for them is to encourage the building of more housing. He wants to increase the housing options people have and described the current housing crunch in the city as a crisis.

“It is really hard to find a place to live in Belfast right now,” he said. “And … I know people who are really well off and they can’t even find an apartment. They can’t find a house to rent or buy.”

Councilor Paul Dean thought the 125-foot distance requirement between a well and a subsurface waste system could be an obstacle for affordable projects. The state requirement is 100 feet. Marshall said allowing more housing units on a property will increase the septic demand on that property, and because of this the separation needs to be increased as a safeguard. It is only a standard for multifamily housing projects.

Dean also took issue with setbacks and zone dimensions in some of the zoning areas in the proposal, compared with other zoning areas with small dimension requirements. Marshall said those differences have to do with where in the city the zoning areas are located.

Councilor Mary Mortier objected to the 50-foot property setback for outside Rural 1 Zone, the largest district in the proposal, compared to the 30-foot setback in other zoning areas. She said the requirement has been 30 feet since she has been in the city and increasing that setback could result in more costs for projects.

Marshall said the 50-foot setback was to provide greater separation between the right-of-way and where a house is located on a property. Councilors approved the changes, but will consider them at a second reading April 5, where there could be some changes to the amendments.

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