AUBURN — The City Council unanimously approved a zone change Monday that will allow an expansion at Gowell’s Variety, a popular neighborhood market on Hampshire Street.

The business improvements will come during a time of greater focus on the neighborhood, which is set to receive a face-lift this summer. 

The owners of the market at 121 Hampshire St. have been looking to build a small addition onto their adjacent property at 127 Hampshire St., but the two properties are in different zones. 

Through a zone change request, city officials have been looking at the properties since January. The owner, Nolin Enterprises, is seeking to build a 600-square-foot addition, but the property at 127 Hampshire St. is in the multifamily urban zone, which prohibits retail stores. 

In order to proceed with the expansion, the owners and city planning staff sought a shift to the neighborhood business zone, and to amend the land-use map to be in compliance. 

The change was widely supported Monday as needed, and for fitting in with the broader improvements to the neighborhood. 

James McPhee, a land-use and zoning consultant working on behalf of Gowell’s Variety, owned by the Nolin family, said the business is a reflection of the tight-knit neighborhood. A petition brought to the City Council by McPhee had more than 250 signatures from customers who support the zone change. He said 166 of the signatures are from neighbors living close by. 

Sophia Nolin, a manager and daughter of owner Bill Nolin, said the store is her “second home and our future.” She and her brother manage the store while their parents spend the winter in Florida. She said they will ask customers what they want to see in the expansion, and that the store plans to offer more homemade meals. 

According to the City Council memo, the expansion will be used for “needed sales space and storage.” 

Mayor Jonathan LaBonte, also supporting the measure, said, “It’s great to have you in the neighborhood,” adding that the store’s engagement with the neighborhood is a positive sign. 

Getting to the zone change was a lengthy process, with several meetings at the Planning Board and City Council level. 

The neighborhood itself will see more improvements soon. A reconstruction project for Hampshire Street has already been funded by a Community Development Block Grant. 

The Hampshire Street project is a beautification effort and includes a complete renovation of the road and sidewalks designed to make the area, which includes Webster School, more pedestrian-friendly. The work will add landscaping along with significant road improvements. 

Work is scheduled to be completed this summer. 

Councilor Bob Stone said he recently toured Gowell’s Variety with the owner. He called the Hampshire Street rebuild “exciting plans, designed to do what Gowell’s market wants to do — develop a strong small business and residential component” in the neighborhood. 

Councilor Grady Burns called Gowell’s Variety “an anchor within the neighborhood.”

“It’s refreshing to see the community support, especially in context with the city’s work,” he said. 

Adaptive reuse ordinance 

Also discussed Monday was a proposed zoning amendment designed to help move along redevelopment efforts for historic properties in the city, namely the former St. Louis Church. 

The amendment would allow the Planning Board to grant a special exception to certain property owners seeking specific uses for a significant property. 

The new owners of the church, who saved it from demolition in 2014, have struggled to redevelop the property because the current zoning is restrictive. The zoning allows only use as a church, school or museum, but the group would like to develop the large building into an arts or community space. 

Doug Greene, Auburn’s urban development specialist, said the Planning Board worked hard to develop the zoning language, which is designed to make it easier to “preserve and rehab buildings that provide a sense of community character and heritage.”

Councilor James Pross said the amendment is a “great proposal” but said the amendment should apply citywide, even to the city’s massive agricultural zone, which is 40 percent of the city.

Concern came from Councilor Andrew Titus, who said changing the zoning rules is worrisome. 

Greene said in order to meet the special exception standard, applicants must meet seven criteria.

“The qualifying properties are limited,” he said. 

City attorney Michael Malloy said, if approved, the Planning Board “will look at this on a case-by-case basis.” 

The Planning Board will vote on the measure Tuesday, and if approved, will come back to the City Council for final approval. 

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New City Manager Peter Crichton welcomed

AUBURN — The City Council officially welcomed new City Manager Peter Crichton on Monday, a few weeks before his expected start date of April 10. 

Crichton, who spent the past 18 years managing Cumberland County, was hired by the council last week. The city held a news conference to announce the move last Wednesday. 

On Monday, Crichton said he’s been spending his time getting to know the city, with help from Assistant City Manager Denis D’Auteuil. 

“It’s a strong team,” Crichton said of the city staff. “I will do my best to contribute to your vision.”

Acting City Manager John Bubier will remain at that post until June. D’Auteuil’s last day in Auburn is Friday, before he makes the shift to assistant city administrator in Lewiston.

Mayor Jonathan LaBonte said he’s looking forward to Crichton starting “in the heat of budget season; there’s no better time to start,” he said. 

Crichton is familiar with Androscoggin County. Prior to working in Cumberland County, he spent 10 years in Lewiston, first at Lewiston Public Works, then as assistant city administrator.

Councilor Bob Stone also officially welcomed Crichton to the city.

“Having worked with you in Lewiston, I found you to be competent, capable and calm,” he said. “The council needs to ensure there is strong leadership heading up the staff, and I think we’ve gotten to that point with you. It’s a really good hire for the city.” 

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