Buildings line the Saco River in the Biddeford Mill District. The Saco River Corridor Commission is considering changes to its regulations. LIZ GOTTHELF/Journal Tribune

DAYTON — The Saco River Corridor Commission is proposing a regulation change regarding the replacement of non-conforming structures that the director says would benefit all communities along the river, not just Saco and Biddeford.The Saco River Corridor Commission administers the Saco River Corridor Act, which was established by the state Legislature in 1973. The commission meets monthly and helps oversee land use development along the Saco River as well as the Ossipee and Little Ossipee rivers, the Little Ossipee Flowage, and Balch Lake. The commission is comprised of two members — one regular and one alternate — from each of the 20 municipalities along these waters.

Last month, Biddeford City Manager James Bennett proposed changes to the Saco River Corridor Commission Act that he said would help eliminate stumbling blocks for development along the river in the downtowns of Saco and Biddeford.

The proposed changes Bennett was suggesting would have required legislation, and Bennett agreed last month to ask that the process for proposing new legislation be delayed to allow the Saco River Corridor Commission to make provisions on the board level that would address Bennett’s concerns and not require legislative changes.

The proposed changes were discussed at a meeting of the Saco River Corridor Commission at the Dayton town offices on Tuesday night.

One of the proposals the commission is considering would make accommodations to allow for further construction of the RiverWalk, which would expand a walking path on both sides of the river in Saco and Biddeford.

Another change the commission is considering would make changes in rules regarding the replacement of a non-conforming structure.

Construction along the river must meet certain setback requirements under the regulations governed by the Saco River Corridor Commission.

Existing buildings that do not conform to these setback requirements are currently allowed a one-time, 30 percent expansion, as long as the addition does not increase the building’s non-conformity.

Currently, there is no standard in place to allow for reconstruction or replacement of existing non-conforming structures. Property owners who have a non-conforming structure and wish to replace it must obtain a hardship variance.

To obtain a hardship variance, an applicant must present testimony of the hardship to commissioners and prove the land can’t yield a reasonable return unless the variance is granted, the need for the variance is due to the unique circumstances of the property and not the general conditions of the neighborhood, the granting of a hardship variance will not alter the essential character of a locality and the need of a hardship variance is not the result of action taken by the applicant or a prior owner.

The applicant must also prove that if a hardship variance is granted, the development would not infringe on the neighbor’s enjoyment of their land or negatively impact the environment.

The commission is proposing changes that would allow for the reconstruction or replacement of a non-conforming structure without a hardship variance as long as it meets certain criteria.

Under the proposed new changes, the criteria would include that the new building could be 30 percent bigger than the original building, but it would not be allowed to exceed the height of the non-conforming structure it is replacing. Also, the new structure must not be any more non-conforming than the original structure, and must be pushed back to meet frontage and setback requirements to the greatest practical extent. If the building can be relocated to meet frontage and setback requirements, then no portion of the new structure may exceed the required frontage and setback criteria.

The proposed change regarding the replacement of non-conforming structures would, if approved, be applied in all areas along the corridor.

“These are changes that need to be made across the board,” said Saco River Corridor Commission Executive Director Dalyn Houser. Houser said there have been scenarios where there have been old non-conforming buildings that are in disrepair or don’t meet modern building code and standards where it would make more sense to replace the building rather than construct an addition.

“This has been a constant problem that’s popped up, not just in Biddeford and Saco but along the entire corridor,” said Houser.

Saco City Councilor Lynn Copeland said she had been through the commission’s permit process as a resident, and had a positive experience. However, she said there are business owners that may be on a different timeline than residents.

Houser said any developer who is considering developing along the Saco River can come to the office prior to meeting with the commission to familiarize themselves with the rules and requirements.

Barry Noble, alternate member of the Saco River Corridor for the city of Saco, said there needs to be a checklist or a guide for those wishing to build along the river, so they know what approvals they need.

“What seems to be happening here, across all the government bodies, there’s no real comprehensive path through, it’s a virtual maze,” said Noble.

Houser said the commission will take comments from community members on the proposed changes until March 16.

Community input will be reviewed before the commission votes on the proposed changes. The proposed changes will then be voted on by the commission, and if approved will go to the Attorney General’s Office for final approval.

Staff Writer Liz Gotthelf can be reached at 780-9015 or by email at [email protected].

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