February 17, 2017

21st Century Plan continues to make strides forward by Stephen Signor

At a town council meeting earlier this year, council members were asked by Planning Board Director Ben Smith, to endorse an application to the Portland Area Comprehensive Transportation System (PACTS), for funding in support of transportation improvements, as part of Windham’s 21st Century Downtown initiative. The Master Plan Application will cover final design, construction, and construction engineering - all consistent with a memorandum from Town Engineer Jonathan Earle.

More recently, a community workshop was held at the Little Meeting House in Windham on February 6. The focus of the discussion was to pursue and gain feedback on potential zoning ordinance changes. To this end, it began with a presentation about character based zoning codes. “The goal of this meeting was to bring to light proposed changes in the current ordinances that dictate the types of development allowed in North Windham. Character based codes focus on types of buildings and how those buildings relate to the street, as opposed to a use based code, which is what we have right now. Such changes would permit more flexibility,” explained Smith. 

At the conclusion of the presentation, attendees were invited to form into groups at tables, each set up with maps on which they could develop their own vision of what they would like to see in the plan. Green dots were placed on what they found favorable and red dots on areas which were not. Another exercise provided by the planning department was the placement of 50 pictures on the meeting house walls - representing development examples, ranging from five-story buildings to two- story houses with porches that are together. Here attendees were encouraged to utilize the same sticker formula that was done on the maps.

The results were mixed and well noted, but the conclusion the same. Part of the problem is: How do you increase property and floor values in North Windham, to attract the kind of development that would make it possible for residents who live here to also work here, instead of having to go to say, Portland? “That is the intention and goal of the 21st Century Plan, to make North Windham more desirable with the end goal of improving marketability,” shared Smith.

“In the end, this proved to be a positive step toward form based coding, which is about the buildings themselves, said Smith.” This is separate from the design standards and would put clarity into a project and indicate that there are no allowances and non-negotiable items. “Form-based codes include specification of what uses are permitted in a building or place, but focus on the physical character of development, particularly how it relates to the public realm that everyone shares. A growing number of communities across the country, and in our region, have found that form-based codes are a more precise and reliable tool for achieving what they want, preserving what they cherish, and preventing what they don’t want. It is also a lot less restrictive,” continued Smith.

The ordinances would come into effect when town planning consultants, Vanessa Farr of Maine Design Cooperative and Kara Wilbur from Principal Group, have completed a draft of the proposed ordinances. “There will be ordinance language for us around May or so, followed by another few months for the approval process with the council,” said Smith.

“It’s exciting and a lot of work. It took 40 to 50 years to get where North Windham is now and it’s going to take a while for improvements to be made and development to happen. So, it’s a long time thing for sure. But if we can put all our ducks in a row in the next three to five years, we’re going to be putting things into place that won’t have to get done again for another two or three generations,” concluded Smith.

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