(Photo by Marjorie Strauss)
(Photo by Marjorie Strauss)
The passage of a zoning ordinance amendment has sparked a legal appeal and a petition drive by residents opposed to changes they believe are too sweeping and threaten the character of some city neighborhoods.

On January 28, an attorney for Rockland resident James Ebbert filed an appeal in Knox County Superior Court in Rockland of the city council’s vote earlier in the month to adopt zoning Amendment 48, which altered regulations for minimum lot and building sizes, accessory dwellings, setbacks, infill housing, and frontage sizes in five of the city’s zoning districts.

On the same day, a group of 19 residents filed a petition to repeal the zoning amendment. City Clerk Stuart Sylvester certified the petition that allows the petitioners up to 30 business days, until March 12, to gather at least 523 signatures in support of the repeal. If successful, the question will be placed on the ballot of the June 11 Budget Validation Election for Regional School District (RSD) 13.

Sylvester explained a minimum of 920 votes will be needed to repeal the amendment. Failure to reach the minimum will put the amendment into effect immediately. In the meantime, the ordinance amendment “is suspended until the petition and referendum process is complete,” he said.

Only the 19 residents who submitted the original petition for certification are authorized to circulate petitions for the repeal, Sylvester said.

Ebbert, who filed the legal challenge, is also one of the 19 petitioners seeking repeal. Others include Rockland Planning Board Chair Erik Laustsen; former Rockland Mayors Carol Maines, Thomas Molloy, Warren Perry, and Richard Warner; former City Councilor Adele Faber; and Rodney Lynch, a past Rockland economic development director.

Two public hearings were held at city council meetings, on January 7 and 14, concerning Amendment 48. Residents lined up for a turn to speak about the changes, with those in opposition frequently invoking the term “tiny houses” to describe accessory dwellings and infill housing, meaning structures built to fill empty lot areas. The primary concern was that tiny houses would lower property values.

Despite the opposition, the council voted 3-1 to pass the amendment on January 14; Mayor Lisa Westkaemper, the amendment’s sponsor, and Councilors Amelia Magjik and Valli Geiger voted in favor, while Councilor Ed Glaser dissented. Councilor Benjamin Dorr was absent.

The legal appeal filed on behalf of Ebbert by Camden-based attorney Paul Gibbons claims the amendment is inconsistent with the city’s comprehensive plan, which was written in 2002 and amended in 2011 and 2012.

“From the evidence before it, the Rockland City Council could not have reasonably determined that this zoning amendment was in basic harmony with the Comprehensive Plan because the zoning amendment did not consider the character of existing neighborhoods, an important factor influencing purchasing decisions made by home owners,” the appeal states.

Rockland’s Comprehensive Planning Commission informed the city council on December 27 that its members were “unable to reach a consensus” on Amendment 48; one member voted in favor of its adoption, while two voted against and another two remained undecided, citing perceived inconsistencies with the comprehensive plan.

The appeal notes the changes voted into law by the city council cover five zoning districts: Zone AA, Zone A, Zone B, Zone RRl, and Zone RR2.

Calling this a “sweeping” change, the suit alleges the city failed to comply with requirements for notice of a public hearing, gave inadequate public notice of a zoning change, failed to notify residents of the zoning change on the city website, and failed to provide residents with adequate opportunity to be heard. “The City Council gave almost no notice of this public hearing,” the appeal claims.

The lawsuit also brings up the tiny houses mentioned repeatedly during the public hearings. “This zoning amendment allows for Tiny Houses—Detached Dwelling Units of less than 800 square feet as a conditional use in all five zoning districts regardless of the size of the lot,” the suit states.

While the description of “less than 800 square feet” is technically accurate, the state building code limits structures in the tiny house category to no more than 400 square feet, according to Planning Board member Marcel Valliere.

The smallest variation of a tiny house, often featured on television and in articles, is called a “THOW” — Tiny House On Wheels. These structures can be towed by a vehicle and are typically 120 square feet or less. Yet they are not allowed for use as homes in Rockland because of their inability to connect to the city’s sewer system, Valliere explained.