After holding a public hearing and then adding a few changes of its own, the Windham Planning Board approved the much-publicized design guidelines proposal Monday night.

The proposal to regulate aesthetic aspects of new construction has been an ongoing discussion in the town for the last four years. As a reaction to haphazard and, what some say, is visually unappealing construction in North Windham, the proposal started out as “standards” mandating certain aesthetic requirements for new commercial buildings. Over the years, those standards have turned into “guidelines” after business leaders and town councilors questioned how detailed the town should be with its ordinances governing the appearance of commercial buildings.

During the past few months, Councilor David Tobin and town attorney Kenneth Cole III trimmed the document from 93 pages to seven pages in an effort to simplify the proposal. And Monday night’s meeting was the Planning Board’s final chance to weigh in on the topic before it goes to the Town Council for final consideration. The board, with a few changes, approved the proposal as written, agreeing that the design requirements for commercial construction should be flexible requirements.

“We’ve talked at length for months and months now and the seminal issue, I think, has been ‘shall’ versus ‘should.’ When you boil it down, that’s been the issue,” Economic Development Director Keith Luke said before Monday night’s vote. “Do we want design requirements that are enforceable as a condition of acceptance or do we outline what our desires are but don’t mandate them?”

With the board’s near-unanimous approval – except for Ryan McDonald who voted against the proposal saying it would deny fair and equitable “due process” to all applicants – the proposal now goes back to the council for further discussion and possible approval at its next regular meeting.

As approved by the Planning Board, the guidelines essentially forces businesses to “address the concepts in the proposal,” said Town Attorney Ken Cole III, but does not force businesses to “address solutions.” In other words, new businesses moving to the area will need to show the Planning Board they have considered each aspect of the design guidelines proposal in the design of their building. But the board will have no authority to require the business to comply with certain building techniques.

Amendments

After about an hour and a half of discussion, the board finalized several amendments to the proposal.

The first requires businesses to provide a written response to each section of the document. In the response, a business would need to explain how it would address issues such as landscaping, color schemes, parking, lighting, signage, buffers and screens, curbing, stormwater management and architectural design. Planning Board members added the written response requirement arguing that it would be a historical record submissible in court and that a written response would “prove” that the business had considered each aspect of the guidelines.

Another amendment would require applicants to reference the more detailed 93-page design guidelines document produced by town staff and the Windham Development District Advisory Committee. The 93-page document is the final draft of the DDAC when that committee was drawing up an initial set of standards regulating building appearance in North Windham. The planning board said the 93-page booklet is a “wealth of information” that shouldn’t be ignored. The board added that the 93-page booklet would also be helpful in describing to potential developers the kind of development Windham officials are looking for.

The board also added a statement requesting that the council investigate a traffic access management plan, which the board said would be a “valuable tool” in handling growth especially in North Windham. The traffic plan would not be a part of the design guidelines but would be a separate document.

Public input

Three Windham residents spoke at the public hearing on the guidelines proposal. John McKinnon said he was in support of the proposal saying it “will not hurt business in the long run. In fact, doing nothing will hurt even more.”

Tom Saunders, owner of the Shops at Sebago on Route 302, said the town shouldn’t overly regulate businesses because doing so may discourage businesses wishing to locate in Windham. He also said the town needs to keep the design proposal “simple as much as possible” since a complicated approval process “takes longer and drives up the cost of building.”

Saunders also said that “the town needs to keep up their end of the bargain” by addressing dangerous traffic patterns in North Windham. He said these improvements could also improve economic development and the appearance of North Windham, the ultimate goals of the design guidelines.

Ed Woodbury, chairman of the Zoning Board of Appeals, said the design guidelines proposal has been the “most difficult and most fascinating (process the town) has been through in quite a while.”

Woodbury prefers that the guidelines go through as the more stringent “standards” saying, “we missed the bus on that 25 years ago. (Standards) would correct what’s going to happen in the next 25 years.”

He continued, “We talk a big game, but then we don’t do anything.”

Woodbury added that the board should use its role in a more powerful way rather than simply approving the plan as is.

“You should tell the town council what you want,” Woodbury said. “There’s nothing wrong with telling them what you want. They need some help.”


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