ELLSWORTH — The Planning Board on Jan. 7 accepted as complete a preliminary application to convert a former medical building at 8 Union St. into a mixed-use building with office, commercial and residential units. Questions have been raised, however, on whether the uses detailed are permitted under the city’s unified development ordinance.
The building sits on a 0.7-acre plot in the Neighborhood Zone and is under contract to be sold to Dale and Barbara Joyce of Swan’s Island.
The Joyces plan to convert medical offices into business office space and a small gallery downstairs, with two residential units upstairs and a second handicapped-accessible ramp to the east side of the building where the five or six offices would be situated.
“It seems to me that it is permissible to subdivide in that manner, but the uses that go in it must conform to the zone,” Chairman John Fink said. “That is a separate question from the simple subdivision of the property. What goes in those offices must comply with the ordinance.”
The city’s land use regulations permit a few types of commercial businesses in the Neighborhood Zone, such as a convenience store or personal services establishments, along with professional services. Commercial uses also are permissible as a home occupation, but the residence needs to be the primary purpose of the building.
“I have no problem with this particular development and what’s being proposed,” board member Rick Lyles said. “But it’s really not an allowed use as stated [in the application].”
A letter to the board from Union Street neighbor V. Kelly Bellis echoed those concerns:
“The purpose of this [Neighborhood] zone is defined under [Sec.] 306.1.C. ‘to recognize those transition areas and provide for a well-planned compatible mixed-use environment,’ but fails to articulate from/to what exactly we’re transitioning. It further reads that ‘This purpose of this zone is to protect existing and attract new residential neighborhoods.’ Nowhere does it state that the zone is to be used for commercial space purposes.”
While a convenience store is an acceptable commercial use in the zone, Fink said there were issues concerning the definitions. “Technically, if we approve this, could [Joyce] convert all six offices or rent all out as a convenience store? I think that’s what Mr. Bellis is sort of leaning towards, and I agree a convenience store in that building would not be a compatible use for that neighborhood.”
Fire and Life Safety Inspector/Plans Examiner Mike Hangge said, “When you say ‘commercial,’ you’re putting all your eggs in one basket. Because regardless of whether it’s a medical office or a lawyer’s office, that’s business. If it’s a store, you’ve basically got mercantile. The idea of having a store changes the occupancy use of the building.”
In addition, while the owners plan to live in one of the upstairs residential units, the second unit, as shown in plans presented by land surveyor Steve Salsbury, president of Herrick & Salsbury, would not have a kitchen, something residential dwellings must contain under the definition in the ordinance. The owner plans to use the second unit as a photography lab and will display work in the downstairs gallery.
Fink said that the board’s job that night was to rule on whether the application was complete, with the merits discussed during the final application review, “at which point, [Salsbury] may have some more information for us.” Unanimous board approval followed.