The Maine Legislature’s Committee on Labor and Housing held a public hearing March 7 on a bill that would make statewide changes to zoning and land use laws at the municipal level.
LD 2003 would implement nine recommendations made by the Commission to Increase Housing Opportunities in Maine by Studying Zoning and Land Use Restrictions in its final report, which was submitted to the legislature in December 2021.
The bill would amend the Maine Human Rights Act’s fair housing provisions to add definitions of the terms “character of a location,” “concentrations of the population,” and “overcrowding of land” and prevent municipalities or government entities from using them to restrict housing construction or development.
The bill also establishes the Municipal Housing Development Permit Review Board, which would review and could overturn housing development permit decisions made by municipalities, and prohibits municipalities from adopting ordinances that put an annual cap on permits for residential dwellings.
LD 2003 also contains several provisions that pertain to the Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD). The DECD would be required to provide technical assistance to municipalities that develop and implement zoning and land use ordinances under the bill. It would also be required to develop a grant program to be used for contracting regional planning organizations to help with developing and implementing zoning and land use ordinances and hiring municipal employees to assist in this effort.
The DECD would also have to develop a program to incentivize the review of municipal zoning and land use ordinances. Under the program, DECD would provide a grant of up to $25,000 to a municipality for each year it participated in the program.
To be eligible, in the first year of the program municipalities would have to establish a working group to review how their zoning and land use ordinances impact housing availability. In the program’s second year, municipalities would have to adopt or amend zoning and land use ordinances to promote housing availability. And in the program’s third year, municipalities would have to provide information to DECD about current or prospective housing developments or permits issued as a result of new or amended ordinances adopted during the program’s second year.
The bill also defines “affordable housing development” and requires municipalities to allow affordable housing developments to be built at certain densities. It also requires that affordable housing developments remain affordable for at least 30 years.
LD 2003 further requires municipalities to allow structures with up to four dwelling units in any zone in which housing is permitted. The bill would require all municipalities to allow the construction of accessory dwelling units by April 20, 2023.
The bill also requires municipalities to designate an area where multifamily housing is permitted at greater density, defined as a priority development zone. The zone must be in an area with significant potential for housing development and located near community resources. The requirement does not go into effect until two years following DECD’s adoption of rules.
Speaker of the House Ryan Fecteau (D-Biddeford), who sponsored the legislation, provided opening testimony in favor of the bill during the March 7 public hearing. Fecteau said Maine is facing a statewide affordable housing crisis.
In response to critics who said the bill erodes local control, Fecteau argued that the bill gives control to “the most local entity of all, Maine people.” Fecteau says the bill tells people if they own property in a residential zone and want to build a duplex, they should have the right to do so. He said the bill empowers “local people to exercise their right to liberty and self-determination.”
Fecteau spent roughly an hour answering questions from the committee, many of which were focused on how the bill would interact with existing zoning and land use restrictions at the municipal level.
Rep. Dick Bradstreet (R-Vassalboro) asked whether private protective development covenants would be protected. Fecteau said he believed they would be but said he was open to adding a provision in the bill that protects existing residential covenants.
Other committee questions expressed concerns that the bill would lead to building at a level that would overwhelm local infrastructure, such as wastewater. Fecteau stated that there are limits to the bill.
The bill garnered a large amount of public interest, both from those for and against the measure. The majority of testimony was offered in favor of the bill, but many supporters of the bill also had suggestions for changes that could be made to improve it.
Rep. Amy Arrata (R-New Gloucester) was one of several lawmakers who testified in favor of the bill. Arata, who is one of the bill’s co-sponsors, said LD 2003 provided a “free-market solution to housing shortages and honors property rights.” Arata suggested that the portion of the bill outlining priority development zones be struck because it “looks too much like a stick.”
Several Maine mayors also testified in favor of the bill, but made suggestions about how the bill could be improved. Carl Sheline, the mayor of Lewiston, spoke on behalf of the Mayor’s Coalition, which represents nine Maine cities and towns.
Sheline called the bill “a necessary part of the solution” to Maine’s housing crisis, but expressed concern that the bill, as drafted, would “encourage or even require low-density spiral into open and agricultural land and in areas without the existing infrastructure to support housing.”
Hannah Pingree, director of the Governor’s Office of Policy Innovation and the Future, submitted testimony in favor of the bill, but also highlighted concerns the Land Use Planning Commission and the Bureau of Resource Information and Land Use Planning within the Department of Agriculture Conservation and Forestry had with the bill.
Pingree noted that Gov. Janet Mills’ supplemental budget proposal includes $3 million in resources to provide technical assistance and award grants to municipal and regional planning organizations. According to Pingree, the “Housing Opportunities Program” proposed in Mills’ supplemental budget “shares the purpose and similar mechanisms as envisioned in this legislation, but with some differences that we assume will be aligned in the Committee’s process.”
Kate Dufour testified against the bill on behalf of the Maine Municipal Association. Dufour said that the bill, when taken as a whole, “appears to be a one-sized-fits-all approach and erodes local control.” Dufour further said the bill forces municipalities to adopt all its provisions, but not every community in the state will be able to.
Dufour said the preference among local leaders is “to create the necessary, state-funded technical assistance programs first, and require implementation of one approach, rather than all those proposed in the legislation, in a manner that fits the community, with the end goal of creating more housing.”
Dufour added that the bill’s housing review board sends a message “that we as municipal officials, as residents, can’t be trusted,” and worried the bill’s requirement for communities to develop priority development zones would create a “significant, unfunded mandate.”