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Caribou revisiting zoning rules in hopes of spurring more economic development

CARIBOU, Maine — After nearly two decades, the city of Caribou is taking a full look at its current land use regulations to make entrepreneurship more attainable for residents and promote widespread economic development.

Caribou has not fully reviewed and updated its land use tables since 2006, according to Code Enforcement Officer Ken Murchison.

Though the city has added new business zones as economic needs arise, more comprehensive updates are necessary, he said. If city officials know what businesses need more or fewer regulations, they can guide aspiring entrepreneurs more quickly toward their goals.

“The idea is to make our land use codes easier to navigate for people who want to start businesses in the city,” Murchison said.

Recently the Caribou Planning Board began reviewing all current designated land uses and discussing which might still be relevant from an economic development perspective. 

They are also debating which uses should remain “permitted,” meaning that they do not require CEO or Planning Board approval, or changed to “conditional,” based on Planning Board review, or not allowed at all.

If the Planning Board makes certain low-impact businesses “permitted” without the need for a public hearing, that could encourage more people to start businesses, Murchison said. The board is ready to start testing that idea with a revised Home Occupations Ordinance that will soon go before the city council for final approval.

Under that ordinance, home occupations that do not require additional state licenses, such as accounting services or bakeries, would only need CEO approval and not a public hearing. With updated land use tables, business owners dealing with more requirements will know exactly what rules apply to their unique businesses.

“With daycare, for example, [the current table] has daycare centers, larger family daycares, group daycares and adult daycares,” Murchison said. “We need to look at what uses really apply to Caribou and if we can combine or streamline some of these [categories].”

Murchison expects the most notable additions to the land use tables to include regulations for relatively new types of businesses, such as AirB&Bs, short-term rentals, tiny houses and solar array farms.

“We have to ask ourselves whether we want to regulate these [businesses]. Right now we don’t have ordinances for them,” Murchison said. “With solar arrays, we have to ask, ‘Is it for industrial or residential use?’ These are things that other city and state governments are looking at that we have to think about.”

Caribou’s new Riverfront Renaissance Committee is also a significant force behind proposed changes to areas running along the Aroostook River, a major waterway that runs through parts of Caribou and surrounding communities.

Formed in September 2021, the Riverfront Renaissance Committee has helped guide changes to the city’s ordinances to allow campgrounds to be located in traditionally residential or rural residential zones on specified acreage. Those changes came about after city councilors approved initial changes to Caribou’s campground rules that have allowed a local entrepreneur to develop a new campsite near Aroostook River.

The committee has numerous long-term goals for the riverfront area. Those goals include working with the Planning Board to develop a Riverfront Development Overlay District, which will overlap with existing zones but encourage certain businesses to operate in certain sections of the overlay.

A craft brewery or small restaurant, for instance, might be allowed to exist closer to the river while more industrial businesses, like fertilizer or food processing plants, would be urged to move production farther away to avoid impact on the environment.

“In a survey [conducted last year] people said they’d love to see specialty shops or a microbrewery,” Murchison said. “The conversations about that are just beginning, but we need to look at what type of development we want to encourage.”

Those conversations will be ongoing for many months, as Murchison and the Planning Board reach out to existing industrial businesses near the riverfront and discuss how to balance the business’ needs with future land use goals. 

In the meantime, the board will continue looking at citywide land uses and urging the public to be involved in their workshops and public hearings.

“Land uses affect everybody,” Murchison said. “If you live in a residential zone where someone can operate a bakery from their home, that brings up issues of traffic and off-street parking.”

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