The Rockland City Council and Housing Options Task Force met in a workshop following a public hearing about a proposed zoning ordinance amendment that drew opposition from residents. (Photo by Brian P. D. Hannon)
The Rockland City Council and Housing Options Task Force met in a workshop following a public hearing about a proposed zoning ordinance amendment that drew opposition from residents. (Photo by Brian P. D. Hannon)
A special workshop with the Rockland City Council on Monday brought out residents who, in large part, opposed prospective changes to a zoning ordinance that will affect residential neighborhoods.

Ordinance Amendment 48 is scheduled for a vote at the council’s next regular meeting, on Monday, January 14. The amendment would alter zoning regulations affecting requirements for minimum lot and building sizes, accessory dwellings, setbacks, and frontage sizes between roads and homes.

A public hearing preceding Monday’s council workshop with the city’s Housing Options Task Force had to be extended beyond its planned 15 minutes when an unexpected number of residents asked to address the ordinance changes that they believe could disrupt the character and density of certain neighborhoods and are not in line with Rockland’s comprehensive plan.

A December 27 memorandum sent to the council and Mayor Lisa Westkaemper by the city’s Comprehensive Planning Commission stated that the panel was “unable to reach a consensus” on a recommendation regarding Amendment 48 — with one member voting in favor, two opposed, and two undecided, citing inconsistencies with the comprehensive plan.

“Allowing accessory dwellings and reducing the lot sizes in every residential zone is not consistent with the Plan,” according to the memo. The commission memo also referred to “infill” — the development of vacant areas within existing neighborhoods — and the contentious issue of short-term rentals. “Commission members expressed reservations regarding the unintended consequence of the potential for short term rentals, as well as density that may not reflect the existing character of the neighborhood,” the memo stated.

Eleven speakers stepped to the microphone Monday to voice opinions about Amendment 48, with only one expressing support for the measure. The majority of opposition centered on the belief that infill would allow empty spaces to be packed with accessory dwellings, meaning additional structures added or built adjacent to existing homes on the same lots.

Eight of those speakers specifically referred to “tiny houses” — small residences, typically between 100 and 400 square feet, that have become an architectural trend as people downsize their living space in an attempt to simplify their lives or just reduce costs.

Residents who expressed opposition to the diminutive structures claimed they would be used as affordable housing alternatives. The neighborhoods where accessory dwellings are built, they suggested, could in turn suffer problems such as overcrowding and sewer congestion that would likely lower property values for current homeowners.

“This type of ruling would not be for new, never-built pieces of land. This ordinance would only be to fill in the vacant house lots from torn-down buildings of old,” Rockland resident Jim Kalloch said. “Infill housing should not be allowing every garage and shed in the city to become a living quarters. This is not infill housing, this is shanty-town housing.”

Kalloch said the council should not attempt to “fundamentally change the city away from the comprehensive plan” in order to find solutions to a lack of affordable housing. Voters passed the city’s updated comprehensive plan in 2002, with revisions made in 2012 and 2015.

“This council keeps talking about tiny houses. Every tiny house I’ve ever seen is a fancy trailer on wheels. And by every zoning rule in the city, they’re not allowed to be lived in,” he said. “No one’s going to build housing and then lose money on renting. So unless the whole plan is to get more subsidized housing in Rockland, of which we have more than our fair share, it needs to be dropped, and the council needs to move on to running the city.”

Jim Ebbert, who called tiny houses a “fad,” said an average cost of $25,000 for the small homes would hurt the economics of a neighborhood where house prices range from $125,000 to $250,000. “There’s only one way for the valuations to go. They go down,” he said, adding that “this is not the solution to low-income housing.”

“Why do you want to mess with neighborhoods like this?” Ebbert asked the councilors. He added that if the amendment passes, residents of his neighborhood and others affected by the change should appeal their property tax bills. “We have a lot of land with our houses. I don’t want tiny houses there. All it does is depreciate the value of my home and other homes.”

Marcel Valliere, a Rockland planning board and housing task force member, said he wanted to clarify that aspects of the ordinance regarding uses and accessory dwellings would require vetting for individual projects.

“They’re not approved in every zone, they’re all conditional,” he said, explaining that changes or upgrades will be vetted in a public forum where neighbors and others can express concerns to the planning board.

Valliere also rejected “the idea that this is a tiny house amendment.” He said there are provisions for those who wish to build smaller homes, but that is not the overall intent of the proposal.

“By no means are the recommendations in this amendment laid out strictly for tiny houses,” he said. “These are changes that will allow people to make modifications to homes, and to allow for family members to live in their house, or to put a first-floor bedroom on where they may not have been able to before so they can age in place. There are a lot of elements of this complex amendment that is really designed to keep the Rockland residents that are here happy, able to live in their homes in Rockland, and stay here.”

Belfast Director of Code and Planning Wayne Marshall said that since 1985 that city has allowed construction of two units in one structure, a duplex, in all zoning districts that allow single-family residences. Subsequent amendments to zoning ordinances in 2014 and 2016 have not significantly increased the number of residential units in Belfast.

“I believe we had one accessory unit constructed between 2014 and 2016, and we may have had another three such units constructed since we changed the code in 2016,” he said.

“When we adopted the ordinances, my hope was that we would see 20 such units over a 10-year period of time. That said, I would not have concerns if more would be built, but we did not expect and have not seen any major changes,” Marshall said.