Council OKs first pass of binding design review expansion

By Ethan Andrews | Jan 10, 2018
Source: Belfast Planning Office, with overlay added by The Republican Journal A proposed ordinance amendment would expand the authority of the city's intown design review committee from the downtown commercial district and working waterfront, shown in red, to three mostly residential zones inside the bypass, highlighted in other colors.

Belfast — The City Council on Jan. 2 took a first step toward expanding the authority of the city's Intown Design Review Committee to make its recommendations binding for most commercial properties inside the bypass.

An ordinance amendment, which applies only to businesses, would affect a relatively small number of properties in the mostly residential areas just outside the downtown commercial district. However, City Planner Wayne Marshall urged the council to take the precaution following a lucky streak with two major projects that he said could have gone much differently.

Belfast's intown design review process dates to 2001 when an advisory board was created to consider exterior modifications to downtown buildings. Initially, owners were required to present their plans to a special city committee, but were free to disregard its suggestions. In 2008, the council changed that, enacting mandatory compliance for properties in the downtown commercial district and working waterfront.

The change was contentious at the time. Supporters of a binding review process cited controversial additions downtown, including a third-story addition above Rollie's Bar & Grill that some saw as a blight on the low, shed-roof skyline and views of the bay beyond.

Rather than seeking historic preservation standards, supporters proposed what Marshall described as a "compatibility ordinance" that was based on an existing ordinance in Portland. Instead of requiring specific building materials, the committee members — typically artists, architects, designers — were charged with making suggestions specific to a particular project "where you'd look at the buildings next to you to determine what would be appropriate," Marshall said.

The council hedged the 2008 amendment with a three-year sunset provision and an economic hardship variance that Marshall said has yet to be used. An appeal provision likewise was never invoked, he said. Marshall chalked this up to the approach of the committee members, who have been flexible and collaborative more than dictatorial.

"The goal has always been to have something fit well with the community," he said.

In 2013 the council extended the term of the ordinance and added some surrounding properties to the area subject to mandatory compliance, again with little incident.

Since then, Marshall said, the committee has reviewed two major projects located in voluntary compliance areas: the expansion of Belfast Area High School and the upcoming reconstruction of the emergency room at Waldo County General Hospital. In both cases, he said, the applicants heeded most of the suggestions of the committee, but they didn't have to.

He noted the hospital opted not to take one of the committee's recommendations. With the high school, he said, the city "got lucky" that Regional School Unit 71 liked the committee's recommendations.

The council passed a first reading of the expanded mandatory-compliance zone. A second reading is required to complete the ordinance amendment.

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