Rockland Planning Board Chair Erik Laustsen, inset, was one of 18 speakers to address a proposed zoning amendment during a city council meeting on January 14. (Photos by Brian P. D. Hannon)
Rockland Planning Board Chair Erik Laustsen, inset, was one of 18 speakers to address a proposed zoning amendment during a city council meeting on January 14. (Photos by Brian P. D. Hannon)
On Monday night, over the vocal objections of some residents, Rockland City Council passed Ordinance Amendment 48 by a vote of 3-1, with Mayor Lisa Westkaemper and Councilors Amelia Magjik and Valli Geiger voting in favor. Councilor Ed Glaser opposed the measure, while Councilor Benjamin Dorr was absent.

The amendment will alter zoning regulations regarding minimum lot and building sizes, infill construction, setbacks and frontage sizes. The Rockland Comprehensive Planning Commission was unable to reach a consensus on its compatibility with the comprehensive plan.

Dorr’s absence was notable when Glaser moved to postpone a vote on the amendment until the next regular council meeting on February 11 to allow time for additional planning and alterations. That vote was 2-2, with Glaser and Geiger favoring postponement and Westkaemper and Magjik opposed; the tie caused the motion to fail.

Glaser then proposed to remove any mention of properties in residential AA zones. Geiger said she supported removing AA zones from the ordinance because those areas would not benefit from being brought into compliance with the other neighborhoods affected by the zoning change. “It was built at a time of suburban zoning, it’s meant to be a suburb, and I’m pretty comfortable allowing it to stay as what it was meant to be and what it was built to be,” she said. That motion resulted in another 2-2 tie, with Westkaemper and Magjik once again opposed, and so amendment 48 then came up for the vote, passed 3-1, and was followed by a five-minute recess as many in attendance headed for the exit.

Prior to the votes, Glaser said he was “torn” over the issue and his motion to postpone was sparked by the vocal opposition of residents.

“I’ve told members of the council who support this that I would support this, but I’ve also listened to the fact that most of the people getting up here today are against this,” Glaser said. “The world is changing around us, it’s not the way it was in 1840 or 1870 when big parts of the city were built. People live different ways than they used to. On the other hand, we’re trying to preserve some of the character of what we have. And I think this is trying to find that happy medium. I don’t think it does find the happy medium.”

At an agenda-setting meeting on January 7, several members of the public expressed beliefs that the measure would negatively impact their property values, the character and density of their neighborhoods, and the city as a whole.

The biggest point of contention focused on an allowance for “accessory dwellings,” which some residents believed would enable other owners to construct “tiny houses” on empty portions of their lots. This “infill,” they believe, would cause overcrowding that could change the character of neighborhoods and lower property values.

On Monday, all but two of the 18 people who spoke were opposed to the zoning ordinance amendment.

Erik Laustsen, chair of the Rockland Planning Board, opposed the amendment and suggested the measure should be put to a public referendum during the next city election in June. “I think this is such a dramatic change for the city in every zone that it really should also go to a public vote,” he said.

Brian Harden, who served four terms as Rockland mayor, told the council Amendment 48 was “going too far, too fast” and would cause “real disruption” in the city.

“I didn’t think I would ever live long enough to see housing lots be less required footage than my cemetery lot,” Harden said, drawing laughs from the audience. “But that is in effect what you are doing.”

Nathan Davis, one of the two residents who supported the amendment, said he would be “thrilled to live next to newly constructed homes, tiny or otherwise, that would enable people, especially younger people without much money, to live here, move here, make lives here, start businesses here, raise children here, and in general become part of the fabric of the community.”

Rockland is in danger of becoming accessible only to the wealthy, retirees, and tourists, Davis said, noting that he and his wife purchased a property more than five years ago they likely could not afford if they arrived in the city today.

“When I look at the younger people moving here, I see the entrepreneurship, I see grit, I see industry, I see artistry, and I see a mission. I also see people struggling to find a place to live,” he said, adding that gentrification can sap Rockland of its “scrappy energy” and other distinctive features.

“This ordinance amendment responds to a changing housing market to accommodate a wider range of people, while carefully considering the character of existing neighborhoods and incorporating safeguards to prevent the construction of unsafe or shoddy housing,” Davis said. “It will position us well for a future in which we can capitalize on our strengths as a diverse, energetic, and changing community.”