Tuesday, May 29, 2018 - Restaurant Drive-through Windows in the Village Commercial District
One of the Orono Town Council’s jobs is to periodically review ordinances as our community grows and changes, or as circumstances change. A recent example would be the Town ordinance related to drive-through windows in the Village Commercial District. Currently, businesses wishing to operate a drive-through window in Orono’s Village Commercial District are allowed by ordinance to do so, as long as they are not operating a restaurant. For several months, the Orono Town Council has been researching, discussing, and asking for public input on an ordinance change that would allow drive-through restaurants—that is, any business serving food and beverage—within the Village Commercial District.
This process is public and ongoing: since January, there have been open discussions at several Community Development Committee meetings, as well as public hearings in front of the Planning Board and Town Council. The Town posted notices in newspapers, online, and around town. The Town also mailed over 100 notices directly to property owners within the Village Commercial District. Despite the Town’s call for public input, the turnout has been low: three individuals spoke at the public hearings in front of the Planning Board and Town Council, and a few individuals attended the most recent Community Development Committee meeting this past Thursday to speak to the Committee about the proposed change.
Throughout this ordinance review, Councilors have been very clear that they were unsure if an ordinance change was in the best interest of the community; however, they went through the process of gathering information and seeking public input. During these discussions, examples like Dunkin Donuts and Starbucks were given, although the specifics of the proposed project at the former Camden National Bank on Main Street were not public at that time.
On Thursday, the Council Committee received a recommendation from the Planning Board at the beginning of the Committee meeting. The Board’s finding was that the proposed ordinance change was not consistent with the Comprehensive Plan. This memo also suggested that Council should approach specific properties and proposals within the Village Commercial District through the contract zoning process. As a result of this recommendation, and with the need to review the Board’s finding carefully, the Committee asked staff to gather more information regarding the ordinance and place this item on an agenda later in the summer for more discussion.
Given the concerns raised about an ordinance change, the owner of the former Camden National Bank on Main Street asked the Committee if the Town was open to considering a contract zone for this property that would allow for it to be leased to Starbucks with a drive-through window. Both State law and Town ordinances give property owners the right to file applications for contract zones, which allow property to be used in a manner that would not otherwise be allowed in the zoning district. Contract zones represent a significant expense for the applicant, in part because they allow the Town to impose very strict standards, request professional studies, and recoup expenses. Because of this, the applicant is offered the opportunity to first ask whether Council Committee would entertain the project. This extremely general, hypothetical discussion is what occurred on Thursday evening.
During this discussion, Councilors clearly expressed that the applicant would be taking a significant risk in moving forward with the contract zone application for the proposed project. Councilors advised the applicant that they had several specific concerns, such as the impact that a high-volume drive-through would have on traffic, pedestrian safety, and walkability in the downtown area. It is a discussion that must be approached carefully, and with as much credible, relevant information as possible; if the applicant is willing to incur the associated expenses for additional research and study, Council is willing to consider this application from a long-term community member who seeks to develop a now-vacant property.
Council has not made any decisions about the proposed ordinance change, and will discuss the matter further this summer. Council has also not made any decisions about the contract-zoning proposal, but rather is open to reviewing more specific information about the project and its potential impacts on our community. This would be a lengthy process that, if continued, includes multiple Committee meetings, Council Workshop, Town Council and Planning Board public hearings, and formal consideration by Town Council.
All of these meetings are open for the public to attend, and several include opportunity for public comment. Community members are always welcome to submit written comments to the Town Manager’s Office (click here to email) as well. These comments will be added to the public record and provided to Councilors. If an application for a contract zone is received, documents will be posted to the Town’s website on the Town Council page for the public to review. Meeting agendas, as well as audio and video recordings of Town Council, Planning Board, and Council Committee meetings, are available on the Town's website on the Agendas & Minutes page. Council encourages community members to become involved, learn more about the proposals being discussed, and provide constructive feedback throughout this process.