Planning boards consider alternative zoning for Twin Cities

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AUBURN — The problem with zoning codes is that they tell developers what they can’t develop — not what they should develop, Auburn Code Enforcement Officer Patrick Venne told Twin Cities planning officials Tuesday night.

“Where existing zoning says you have to avoid what is bad, it never says you have to do what’s good,” Venne said. “It kind of leaves that up to chance.”

Venne led planning board members from Lewiston and Auburn in a discussion of an alternative zoning code based on the way buildings and streets look, not on how they are used.

“Uses of buildings can change over time,” Venne said. “If you drive along Center Street, for example, you’ll see buildings that are no longer in use that were built for a particular and specific purpose. Once that purpose ceases, the building is just sort of there as a carcass. If you build a form that can support a number of uses over time, you might see a law office become a residence. It might flip back over to commercial use again, or become retail or an art gallery.”

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Venne, a six-month employee of Auburn, completed a course at the Form Based Code Institute in Providence, R.I., in June. He offered the concept to board members as a possible scheme to help encourage downtown development that is pedestrian-friendly and would invite investment.

“If the intended results are to create a sort of outdoor room where people feel comfortable walking around, you do that by creating a consistent street,” he said.

It was the second time members of the two planning boards had met to discuss issues common to both sides of the Androscoggin River.

“What they do in Auburn is very important to us in Lewiston and what we do can be of critical importance to them,” said Gil Arsenault, Lewiston’s director of Planning and Code Enforcement. “To anyone looking at us from outside, this is one community. They’ll eat at DaVinci’s over here, and go buy a car at Lee Auto. The river really doesn’t mean that much.”

Both cities use traditional zoning codes that regulate what kind of uses can go in a particular area, with zones for residential, office, retail and industrial developments.

Form-based codes simply tell a developer what a building should look like — how tall the buildings should be and how close they should be to the street, for example. That gives the developer more flexibility and usually makes the city’s rule-making process easier for developers to use.

“The legal documents tend to be very simple, and many of the decisions are very straightforward and can be made at a staff level,” Venne said. “It can be very attractive for a developer.”

Members of Lewiston’s Planning Board said they like the idea and could see using it for the city’s newest development project, the River Front Island. Consultants are developing a master plan to guide development in that area, between the river and the canals, from Island Point to Cedar Street. It includes the Bates Mill complex, as well as Simard-Payne Memorial Park, the Franco-American Heritage Center and Museum L-A.

“That whole area is really a blank canvas,” said Eric Potvin, a member of the Lewiston board. “What we see as the future for that area, this could be good test case for this. I would like to discuss it later.”

staylor@sunjournal.com

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