A proposed zoning ordinance with considerable implications for off-campus housing generated spirited debate at a town council meeting on Tuesday.
Zoning Ordinance 166, sponsored by District 7 Councilor Newell Augur, proposes to limit the number of people who can live together "who are not part of a household unit" to no more than two people. The ordinance also seeks to redefine "household unit" as a "domestic relationship based upon birth, marriage, or other domestic bond as distinguished from a housemate or roommate situation."
After almost two hours of discussion, the Town Council voted unanimously to send the ordinance to the Brunswick planning and zoning boards for re-evaluation.
The ordinance stemmed from "a need to define what a household unit and a dwelling unit are," but also arose because of "a code decision on 17 Cleaveland St. and the interpretation that took place there," Town Manager Donald Gerrish said at the meeting.
This summer a group of local residents?including Associate Professor of Film Studies Tricia Welsch?appealed to the Brunswick Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA), insisting that under town ordinances, a two-unit house at 17 Cleaveland St. constituted a "boarding house"?prohibited by law in Brunswick. The house had been purchased by brothers Dr. Dimitri Seretakis '94 and Anthony Seretakis '95 and rented out to 11 current Bowdoin students?six students in one unit of the house, five students in the other.
Though the initial appeal failed, the neighbors of the property at 17 Cleaveland St. have appealed the case to the Cumberland County Superior Court.
After the Zoning Ordinance was introduced at the town meeting, a public comment session yielded strong opinions on both sides, with many of the remarks pertaining to 17 Cleaveland St.
Those who spoke in favor of Ordinance 166 argued that buildings like 17 Cleaveland St. were rented out for, above all, financial gain.
"The transformation of homes into dwellings for unrelated individuals is a for-profit business model which threatens the integrity of our neighborhoods," Mark Wild, a Brunswick resident, said in a statement at the meeting.
Professor Welsch also spoke in favor of the proposed ordinance, arguing "the owners of 17 Cleaveland Street are clearly in this as a business venture...they have purchased no fewer than five large homes in two college towns in the last 18 months." According to Welsch, the brothers have purchased 5 separate properties in the last 18 months?three in Somerville, Mass. near Tufts University, and the two disputed units at 17 Cleaveland St.
Those that argued against the ordinance were also concerned with disturbances caused off-campus by students. Brunswick resident and Associate Professor of Sociology and Anthropology Susan Kaplan acknowledged that while living off campus is a "learning experience," it creates stress for neighbors with new students moving in.
"This is destabilizing neighborhoods, lowering property values, and causing undue friction. It may be a learning experience, but it's on the backs of Brunswick residents," she said.
Residents who spoke out against the ordinance raised concerns of enforceability, as well as the economic consequences of the proposal.
"With the [naval air] base closing [and] producing a saturation of investment properties, the last thing we want to do is restrict the rental market," said Brunswick resident Grace Cooney.
Cooney also raised an issue with how the ordinance sought to curb "delinquency."
"Delinquency should be dealt with by a code or some law enforcement, not dealt with by a city-wide ordinance," she said.
Cooney, as well as Brunswick residents David Chittin and Glen Hallosman, were among those who spoke at the meeting that rent out their property in Brunswick. Hallosman said it is his responsibility to interview and tend to his tenants, and argued that the proper channels to address the ordinance were through the planning and zoning boards.
Chittim, who often rents his property to Bowdoin students, agreed, adding that "I'm careful as a landlord to whom I rent my home."
The brothers of the property at 17 Cleaveland St., their mother, Grace Seretakis, and their attorney, Sandra Geay, also spoke at the meeting to argue against the ordinance.
Anthony Seretakis said that residents are "trying to project what they see as a problem on the entire town." Dimitri Seretakis produced petitions from the town against the ordinance, and explained that he and his brother are not earning a living by renting to Bowdoin students.
"The home is not a business venture, it's me and my brother's summer residence, and we could only afford renting it out to Bowdoin students," he said. "I had a longtime wish to return to this town and own a summer home, this is the only way I can."
Geay argued that average rents in Brunswick would prevent two Bowdoin students from sharing rent, unless they worked full-time jobs above the minimum wage. She also cited other towns with housing and family restrictions, which tend to restrict housing to five unrelated people.
"What if there are 15 people living together, how do you know if they are related? The fear is that you create an enforcement nightmare," she said.
No Bowdoin students living off campus spoke at the meeting, though Bowdoin Student Government (BSG) Representative and off-campus resident Sam Dinning was in attendance in the meeting.
"I attended the town meeting as both a resident of off-campus housing (Red Brick House) and as a member of BSG," he wrote later in an e-mail to the Orient.
"It would have been nice to see the debate center not on Cleaveland St. or School St. property, but rather on the more general concept of off-campus housing in Brunswick," Dinning added.
After public comment, town councilors weighed in on the ordinance. Many of them voiced their displeasure with the proposal as written, especially with the fact that no more than "2 people who are not part of a household unit" can live in the same dwelling.
"Peace and quiet is the issue, but I think two is too low," District 2 Councilor Jacqueline Sartoris said.
District 1 Councilor David Watson agreed.
"What is in front of us is unacceptable," Waston said. "The number two is too low."
District 3 Councilor Hallie Daughtry was concerned that the ordinance was "treading into dangerous waters" by interfering with privacy issues, and didn't want to "infringe upon the rights of other homeowners or landlords."
"I do not feel comfortable with government intrusion into living arrangements," Daughtry said. "Bowdoin has been part of Brunswick for over two centuries."
District 6 Councilor Margo Knight echoed Daughtry's sentiment, saying that, "as a trial balloon, this has popped."
"I think the issue of enforceability is something we need the planning board to address," Knight said. "We do want to keep affordable housing in downtown Brunswick, but we also want to maintain the character of the town with the character of the houses."
District 4 Councilor Tom Schneider raised similar concerns to those voiced earlier by Cooney over issues of enforceability.
"I think behavior, or bad behavior, is really the only issue here," he said. "Other than that, I want to know why this is even before the council. Brunswick has laws against noise, unsanitary housing, and littering, so more legislation is not needed for this," he added.
However, Sartoris argued that the police cannot constantly patrol the area or handle such disturbances due to limited resources. She cited a need to "ensure landlord responsibility," perhaps with written rules or penalties for repeated infractions to keep renters under control.
Councilors expressed hope that the zoning and planning boards will be able to investigate the topic, though a formal hearing of the ordinance has not yet been scheduled.
After hearing from the residents, Sartoris said that there are "better answers" to be investigated by the boards to appease the concerns.
"This is about compromise for residents to have the expectation of quiet enjoyment of their homes and also allow landlords to make a profit on their property," she said. "We're looking for balance... It is a problem we need to address."