ELLSWORTH — The city’s Planning Board wants more oversight on development in Ellsworth. At least, that was the message board members sent to city staff at a meeting on Jan. 8.
“A lot of the development that has taken place in Ellsworth is not being reviewed by residents. It’s being OK’d by non-resident staff,” said board member John DeLeo.
As the city’s ordinance is written, “minor use” developments can be approved by the code enforcement officer. Developments that are considered “major use” must come before the Planning Board, a more extensive (and expensive) process that includes a public hearing.
But, as was evident at last Wednesday’s meeting, staff and board members may disagree on which projects should be considered minor and which major.
The question arose when DeLeo read in The Ellsworth American that Convenient MD, a 5,350 square-foot facility on the site of the former First National Bank branch on High Street, had received permits from the Code Enforcement Office to start construction without coming before the Planning Board for approval.
There are several criteria for determining which projects can be considered minor, but the first is that “The new construction and/or expansion of gross non-residential floor area [does not] exceed 5,000 square feet in any five-year period.”
“[Code Enforcement Officer Dwight Tilton] considered that it was an expansion of the old First National Bank,” DeLeo explained.
“The old First National Bank was 3,264 square feet, so basically they added on about 2,100 square feet … his interpretation was they’re expanding the old First National bank by 2,100 square feet, which is under the 5,000 square feet specified in the ordinance.”
But, DeLeo continued, “How can you expand a vacant lot? You’re not expanding the First National Bank. In my mind an expansion would have been adding 2,100 square feet to the First National Bank. That’s an expansion. Not tearing it down and building a brand-new building.”
Board member Rick Lyles agreed.
“It seems to me that this is a relatively significant structure that was built with, in essence, no review by the Planning Board,” Lyles said. “If it had been a vacant lot, it certainly would have been reviewed by the Planning Board. Seems to me there’s something wrong with that.”
The ordinance does not mention crediting the square footage of a demolished building toward the new structure, noted developer Stephen Shea, nor does it mention footprint.
“If you’ve got a two-story building and each story has 3,000 square feet, that’s 6,000 square feet. It’s got nothing to do with footprint, in this ordinance,” said Shea, adding: “There’s no language in this ordinance about demolition being credited. To me that’s a gross, gross violation.”
Tilton was not present at the Jan. 8 meeting, but City Planner Jef Fitzgerald said that while changes to the ordinance might be in order, going forward, staff would stop crediting demolition toward the square-foot requirement and would use gross-area, including all stories, rather than just the footprint.
“Really, he’s putting more burden on his own position by doing it that way,” said Fitzgerald, of Tilton.
“As far as he’s concerned, he’d love you guys to take that off of his plate and review these things.”