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How important is 100 feet? It can launch a business, or stall it

June 30, 2010
BERLIN — The city council will vote next week on whether to change the zoning ordinance to expand development opportunities on non-conforming lots.

The issue has been in the courts recently, after the zoning board overturned a planning board decision to allow an owner with lot too small by today's standards to open a restaurant. The court sided with the zoning board, agreeing the old city ordinance forbade development on the lot.

The lot, which has 40 feet of frontage, is actually too small by today's standard to put anything on—commercial or residential, and therefore still sits undeveloped.

The new ordinance, however, would allow development of such undersized lots to move forward, so long as the developer meets the required setbacks.

But this one case isn't the reason for the change, said city planner Pam Laflamme: it is intended to clean up the language of the ordinance to avoid confusion, so cases like this won't happen again.

The city requires businesses looking to build in the city to meet several criteria: they must locate their business within an area zoned for their intended use—not, for instance, in a neighborhood zoned residential; they must have a plot of land 100 feet by 100 feet; they must meet the required setbacks from their property line to avoid crowding neighbors.

The new ordinance would provide an exemption, however, for established lots, even if they don't meet the 100 by 100 rule.

The city adopted zoning rules in 1964, Mrs. Laflamme said, after the majority of the city had already been built. Many properties in areas zoned commercial are not big enough for developers to actually build on them, she said, and in some cases a developer would have to buy two adjacent properties to meet the city requirements.

The new ordinance would allow anyone developing an established lot to go ahead with the project so long as they could meet the setbacks. The restriction that the zoning board used to overturn the planning board's decision would be eliminated, and small lots around the city could sprout businesses.

City council will vote on the issue next week.

Planning board member David Morin said he want doesn't want to see developers be allowed to ignore the 100 by 100 foot standard. In the long view, he said, he would like to eventually eliminate those small lots, and allowing development on them won't help.

But the criticism that arose from the zoning board case was that such restrictions make it hard to start a business in Berlin, which no one wants to stifle.

The council will have to weigh whether clearing barriers to business or orderly development of the city takes precedent in their decision next week.

"This is about how the city intends to uses these existing lots from this point forward," Mrs. Laflamme said.

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