China residents gather to discuss comprehensive plan

China residents discuss the town’s comprehensive plan on Saturday at Erskine Academy. (photo by Eric Austin)

by Eric W. Austin

Approximately 25 residents of China gathered in the cafeteria at Erskine Academy on Saturday, May 18, to discuss the town’s comprehensive plan, which is formulated every ten years to help guide the direction of town policy. Town Manager Dennis Heath and Selectman Irene Belanger were also in attendance. The planning session was moderated by Joel Greenwood, from the Kennebec Valley Council of Governments.

The agenda for the public planning session included three topics of discussion: Water quality for China Lake and Three Mile Pond; Housing availability; and Growth, Land Use and Zoning.

Discussion began with an affirmation of the importance of China Lake to the economic health of the town. “I don’t have lake property,” said Mark Davis, a resident from the north end of town, “but I understand the value of the lake to the town, and the more we can do for water quality, the better it’s going to be [for the town].” Scott Pierz, president of the China Lake Association, agreed with this sentiment. “The lake is connected to all of us, in one way or another,” he said.

Joel Greenwood, from the Kennebec Valley Council of Governments, moderated the discussion. (photo by Eric Austin)

It was also mentioned that if water quality degrades, property values of lakefront homes will decrease, shifting more of the tax burden onto homeowners living away from the lake.

Bob O’Connor suggested that the town ban the use of gas boats on China Lake, and only allow boats with electric motors.

There was also discussion of the importance of finding a balance between creating policy to insure continued lake quality and placing burdensome and expensive requirements on home owners and new construction projects. Ron Morrell, pastor of China Baptist at the north end of the lake, pointed out that controlling phosphorous runoff into the lake increases the cost of construction and may prohibit some people from moving into the community.

It was reported that China Lake is currently experiencing the best water quality it has seen in 30 years, but this is mostly due to the dry weather and lack of severe storms in the past year.

There was some discussion of the proposed purchase of lakefront property next to the Four Seasons Club for public access to the lake, with some residents questioning whether it was a good investment, and whether a public beach would have a detrimental effect on water quality. Town Manager Heath said, “This is a target of opportunity to acquire the land. We know a plan [still] needs to be developed.” He went on to say, “I anticipate that it will be two or three years before we can actually do anything on that property. We need to take the time to develop a plan and get it before the people – because I am a believer in the public approving of what you do. So, we need to put something together, put it in front of people, and get them to agree to it.”

Tom Rumpf, president of the China Four Seasons Club, reminded everyone, “You are welcome, any time you want, to come down and check out our beach, and with a $25 membership, you can jump in the lake anytime you want.” He also reported that China is becoming known across the state for its excellently maintained trails, which have become popular for both snowmobilers and ATV enthusiasts from all over central Maine.

The discussion then moved to housing availability in China. Town Manager Heath spoke about the need for senior housing in the town. “China needs affordable senior housing,” he said. “It’s part of the China for a Lifetime Committee’s goals, and so we’re marching down that road. I anticipate that we will have some movement [on that soon].” Greenwood then asked whether those in attendance were in favor of the town pursuing an initiative to bring affordable senior housing to China. A majority of those present raised their hands in favor of the proposal.

Several residents expressed resistance to adding more Section 8 (subsidized) housing for low income people in China.

Selectman Irene Belanger spoke about the possibility of instituting a public water and septic system in China, and suggested that new developers may steer clear of development projects in towns which require the installation of a private well and septic for every property. Dennis Heath warned that such a public system would likely cost in excess of $35 million.

Following a short break, discussion shifted to the final topic of the planning session: Growth, Land Use and Zoning.

Some residents expressed the need for careful planning of new development and the desire to avoid “suburban sprawl.” A resident also brought up the online rental service, Airbnb, and the impact that it has had in other communities like Portland. Tod Detre, a member of the Broadband Committee, mentioned the situation in Toronto, Canada, where companies have bought up residential properties for the purpose of renting them through Airbnb, which has driven up property values to astronomical levels.

Several residents mentioned the importance of protecting the town’s farmers, at a time when many farms in Maine are closing down.

A number of residents expressed a desire to make new building requirements simple and straightforward. The group agreed that building codes should aim to be “quantifiable and measurable, with specific and easy to understand criteria.”

There was some discussion about where new development should take place, and it was agreed that careful planning should be done to decide the best placement of future residential and commercial construction projects.

Finally, the group considered the 2008 China Vision Statement, and it was generally agreed that it was still a good representation of town values, although a suggestion was made to add language to “encourage and facilitate volunteerism and community involvement.”

The Comprehensive Planning Committee will take the feedback gained from this public workshop to develop China’s Comprehensive Plan to present to voters next year at the town business meeting. The committee will meet monthly throughout the summer and fall. Anyone interested in participating on the planning committee should contact the town office at 445-2014.

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