SACO – A proposal for an approximately 19,000-square-foot, 42-foot-high indoor riding arena has pitted neighbor against neighbor in a rural corner of Saco off Louden Road.
Now, the City Council must decide whether to change a zoning ordinance to allow a maximum height of 50 feet for barns in certain rural and commercial zones.
Following a lengthy public hearing on Monday, the council is set to make a final decision on the proposed zoning amendment at a meeting scheduled for Tuesday, Feb. 19, at 7 p.m.
The Planning Board first approved a site plan for the riding arena, which was proposed by Beth Austin, who owns 19 acres at 121 Louden Road, last June. However, at that time it appeared from the documents submitted that both Austin and her builder were aware of Saco’s 35-foot height limit for any building in any zone.
In August, Austin received a permit to pour the foundation for the arena, and at that point the construction information submitted to the code enforcement office indicated the peak of the barn roof would be 41 feet, 6 inches in height.
Even though that exceeded the height limit in Saco’s ordinance, the permit for the foundation was approved and Austin and her builder went ahead with pouring the concrete and ordering the steel infrastructure for the riding arena.
When Dick Lambert, the city’s code enforcement officer and building inspector, realized that the peak of the arena roof would be in violation of Saco’s zoning rules in late summer he ordered that all work on the project be stopped.
Austin appeared before the Zoning Board of Appeals in early November seeking a variance for the nearly 7-foot difference in the city’s zoning rules and the actual height of her barn. The board rejected the request for a variance and that’s when the issue went back to the Planning Board for an amendment to the city’s zoning rules.
City Planner Bob Hamblen said Monday that the Planning Board supports allowing barns to be up to 50 feet in height, but it has also suggested that the higher the barn, the wider the setback requirements should be from adjacent properties.
That’s the proposal now before the City Council.
But Austin is objecting to that approach, and her neighbors, Mark and Lee Duranceau, are opposed to the council changing the height limit at all, arguing such a large building so near to their house would block their scenic views and negatively impact the enjoyment of their property.
On Monday, the Duranceaus’ attorney, Craig Rancourt, called the proposed riding arena a “behemoth,” and said it would be nearly 17 times larger than his client’s home.
“My clients do not object to barns and they know (such structures) are an important part of the landscape and the rural economy,” Rancourt said.
But, he argued, it’s not “sound government policy to change the ordinances for everyone who wants to do a project that doesn’t conform to the rules.”
Lee Duranceau told the council she doesn’t understand why Austin can’t build her riding arena to fit the current zoning rules for height and setbacks, and said that another neighbor has built a commercial riding arena that conforms to all the rules and still “allows plenty of room for jumping horses.”
A friend of the Duranceaus, Mark Winslow, spoke on their behalf Monday.
“I feel there would be a severe impact on their view because this building would be immense,” he said. Adding that the council “needs to stick to the law and leave the emotion out of it.”
Austin said she was before the council to seek its “help and consideration” for a project that she believes meets the intent of Saco’s comprehensive plan to allow for agricultural uses of rural property.
She also said that three seasons of the year, the Duranceaus would not be able to see her riding arena through the trees that lie between the two properties. In addition, Austin said, she’s already made substantial investments in the riding arena and so would like to see it allowed.
Austin said the rules in Scarborough and Biddeford governing barns make much more sense than what Saco has on the books, and she would like to see the city allow barns of up to 50 feet in height with a percentage approach to the setback requirements.
Brian Johnson, Austin’s builder, said there was never any intent to deceive the city about the ultimate height of the barn’s roof.
“At the end of the day, there was a lot of miscommunication, but we never tried to hide anything,” he said.
Peter Doughty, a resident of McKenney Road, urged the City Council to change its zoning rules to allow higher roofs for barns in certain areas of Saco.
“You shouldn’t restrict people’s ability to use their own property,” he said.
Linda Roth, who lives on Seaside Avenue, said she can understand why the city would want to limit the height of buildings on the shoreline, but argued the rules “should be separate and distinct for agricultural land.”
“I believe our agricultural land, which is part of the beauty of Saco, should be used and we should take a step back from our current restrictions,” she added.
But, Winslow said, while Austin’s property is “beautiful” and she’s made many improvements, “we should stick with the rules we have. That foundation should never have been poured and the project should have been more closely scrutinized.”
In other action Monday, the council unanimously defeated a proposal by Monkey Trunks eXtreme to allow a zip line across the top of Cascade Falls in a 7-0 vote.
Monkey Trunks opened in May 2011 and first approached the city’s Parks and Recreation Department last fall about adding a new 700-foot zip line over the falls.
The falls and the 14 acres surrounding it were donated to the city by local developer Elliott Chamberlain, and Saco Bay Trails is working with the city to create a series of walking trails and viewing platforms there.