News Feature

Originally published in Castine Patriot, June 10, 2021
Castine Selectmen discuss housing, fire station

by Eli Forman

After more than a year of conducting business through disembodied virtual headshots, the Castine selectmen physically gathered in Emerson Hall on Monday, June 8, for their bimonthly meeting.

At least four Castine residents were also present for the occasion, and a virtual option was, and will continue to be, provided for those unable or unwilling to relinquish the privacy of their homes.

After conducting the usual business of the general fund and water warrants, the assembled residents were surprised to hear from Town Manager Shawn Blodgett that the Maine Legislature is considering a bill that, according to Blodgett, would prevent municipalities across Maine from enforcing property setback limits over 5 feet for new construction of accessory dwelling units (ADUs), also known as in-law suites. In practice, Blodgett said this means that Castine’s current zoning regulations, which mandate at least a 30-foot setback from a property line for new ADU construction, would be legally unenforceable. Driving this bill is the current affordable housing crisis affecting communities across the state, especially in the more densely populated south.

A flurry of concerned discussion commenced, with Selectman Peter Vogell commenting, “I think it’s pretty bad that the state is going to overrule the town.”

Blodgett weighed in, as well, stating, “It appears to me we could not stop someone building if they have 5 feet from property lines.”

Blodgett also pointed out that the proposed bill would not change Castine’s current laws governing what constitutes an ADU, in response to a resident’s question about whether the bill would permit trailers to start cropping up in town. He also specified that historic preservation would supersede the bill, leaving Castine’s historic district unaffected.

In other areas, “inevitably you’re going to increase the density,” Blodgett said.

A resident asked what effect the bill would have on vacation rentals. Blodgett said that since Castine does not have any ordinances or zoning laws governing vacation rentals, there would be no change.

Residents also asked what recourse community members have to express their disapproval with the bill. The selectmen suggested petitioning elected officials.

“Housing should be controlled as the town wishes it to be controlled,” said Selectboard Chairman Gordon MacArthur.

In other news, the selectboard approved temporarily sending Castine’s recycling to a landfill since its current recipient, Penobscot Energy Recovery Company, will be closed for maintenance until June 24. A backlog of recycling from across the region is expected as the plant will most likely struggle to accommodate pent-up demand when it reopens later in the month.

The selectmen also heard from Beverley Bishop about the annual shoreline cleanup planned for June 29. Volunteers will gather on the town dock, receive maps of Castine’s shoreline and trash bags and set off to complete their sections. A barbecue at Backshore Beach will conclude the event, but the timing is still up in the air, according to Bishop. “I don’t know how trashy Castine’s shoreline is,” she said.

Another ongoing item of discussion centered on the potential location of a new fire station. The town has engaged Portland-based Port City Architecture to conduct feasibility studies and environmental assessments on buildable property the town owns that could serve as possible locations. Currently, no funding exists for construction, and the project is in its preliminary, exploratory stage.

Several residents expressed extreme concern that property near the town waterworks was being evaluated in the upcoming studies, claiming that chemicals released from firefighting equipment cause cancer and would contaminate the town’s water supply. It seemed to them that building a new fire station there was a foregone conclusion, with one resident going so far as to tell the selectboard that the town would “rise up against you.” The assembled residents demanded a promise from the selectboard that the site near the waterworks would never be considered for a new fire station.

Selectman Colin Powell tried to restore calm by explaining that the point of the upcoming studies is to provide a scientific process that takes into account environmental concerns through which inadvisable or impossible sites can be discarded.

“We need a process, we can’t promise,” he said, pointing out that a hypothetical next group of residents could show up demanding a promise that a fire station won’t be built somewhere else.

Blodgett also noted that, at the moment, “we don’t have the funding to put one nail in a board.”