2013-01-11 / Front Page

Cape’s ZBA could need tweaking

Staff Writer
By Jack Flagler

CAPE ELIZABETH — Community service isn’t always pretty.

That’s the message that comes through notably for any observers in the audience of zoning board of appeals meetings in Cape Elizabeth, the last three of which have averaged four hours in length.

The board gives Cape Elizabeth residents an opportunity to either petition for variances to the zoning ordinance or appeal decisions by the code enforcement officer.

The nature of the meetings makes for an atmosphere with high levels of tension. Often neighbors come to the board arguing different interpretations of the zoning ordinance to prove what can or can’t be done with a certain property.

“I think if someone is trying to do permitted work on their house, there are natural tensions between property owners and their abutters. Some people always end up not happy,” said Josh Carver, a local attorney and member of the zoning board of appeals.

However, Cape Elizabeth’s meetings have begun to run especially long, and tensions seem especially high. At the meeting on Jan. 2, residents answered pointed questions from board members, and presented maps, photos and letters that made the town council chambers seem like a courtroom.

The January meeting was relatively short — it adjourned after two hours and 40 minutes — but the Nov. 27 meeting stretched past the four-hour mark, and the Oct. 23 meeting ended the morning of Wednesday, Oct. 24 after five hours and 13 minutes. There is no limit to public discussion at the meetings, and therefore no maximum length.

Town council liaison David Sherman said he has not watched enough zoning board of appeals meetings to comment on possible structural changes, but he did say there was some concern among the council that the meetings “have become quite long and too adversarial.”

The council did not specifically address making the zoning board of appeals meetings more efficient in its 2013 goals, adopted Jan. 7. However, it did include a general goal to “encourage effective citizen participation in local government,” which included a desire to “review the roles and responsibilities of volunteers on local boards and commissions.”

Town Council Chairman Jim Walsh, who served on the board for six years, addressed the issue specifically at the council’s Jan. 7 meeting.

“I’ve been observing this over the last several months and I’ve been really concerned that the roles and responsibilities have to be clear in what people are supposed to be doing,” Walsh said, adding he hopes volunteers can feel they’re “adding value” by serving on local boards and commissions.

At the Dec. 3 town council workshop, councilors raised the issue of whether the presence of six attorneys on the seven-member zoning board of appeals was a hindrance to the board’s goals.

Councilor Jamie Wagner, also a local attorney, said in a later interview that the profession of the members has nothing to do with the length of meetings, which he said comes down to “individual personality rather than profession.”

“I think it’s very helpful to have attorneys on the board,” Wagner said. “They’re used to reading the statute and that’s part of many attorneys’ job, to read contracts and statute ordinances. We’re lucky to have the qualified members we do.”

Sherman said any board or commission generally benefits from a cross-section of the community, but there are plenty of attorneys on various volunteer boards in the town and he has never considered that to have a negative impact.

While the council did not address meeting length specifically in its 2013 goals, it will hope to make the zoning board of appeals work better for citizens through other changes.

When the code enforcement officer issues a building permit in Cape Elizabeth, notices will now be posted to all abutting landowners. This will allow abutters to bring any issues to the zoning board of appeals before the 30-day window runs out.

If an abutting landowner wants to bring an appeal after 30 days have passed from the date a permit is issued, the board cannot act on that appeal, which would then go straight to superior court.

The change will make the zoning process more transparent and easier for residents to take advantage of, but it won’t necessarily cut down the burden of lengthy meetings on board members. In fact, the change means more appeals are likely to be filed. However, Carver said he still sees the change as a major improvement.

“It will be easier to file a timely appeal. In my view, that’s what the zoning board is there to do, is to hear these appeals. I find it would be a much more efficient process,” Carver said.

“It might make it more cumbersome for someone who wants to build a structure, but the flip side is, it gives people in the community the ability to be heard,” added Sherman.

Wagner, new to the town council in 2013, attended the Jan. 2 zoning board of appeals meeting after the town council’s workshop in the same building, but said he hasn’t observed enough yet to decide whether structural changes need to be made to shorten the length of the meetings.

However, Wagner said changes down the road could help “to make sure the community is getting the most benefit of how the process works, and members aren’t burdened with lengthy meetings.”

For now, Wagner said, the new notification system should help the process.

“It makes sense from a good community relations standpoint,” Wagner said. “New neighbors should be greeted with a bottle of wine rather than a summons.”

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