The Harpswell Planning Board has placed new conditions on its pending approval of a project to redevelop the former Estes Lobster House in South Harpswell into a single-family home, including the completion of stormwater management and landscaping plans.
Property owner Larry Crooker’s Estes Properties LLC is seeking permission to demolish a portion of the former restaurant, which closed in 2020, and convert the rest into a 5,000-square-foot home. It’s his second attempt to redevelop the site at 1906 Harpswell Neck Road after being denied permission to convert it into two waterfront condominiums in 2022.
The latest change-of-use application for Estes Properties came before the Harpswell Planning Board on Wednesday, Oct. 18. During the meeting, Town Planner Mark Eyerman explained the history of the project and said the board had three questions before it.
The first question involved the continued applicability of a restriction placed on the property by the town’s Board of Appeals in 1989 in exchange for granting a previous change of use, which limited allowable uses on the property’s second floor to a gift shop only.
The board decided the restriction should no longer apply because of changes to town zoning and Planning Board rules that have happened since 1989. It voted unanimously that the decades-old restriction shouldn’t stop the project from moving forward.
The second question before the board was whether the change of use from a restaurant to a single-family home would “have no greater impact” on local streams, wetlands, the property itself or adjacent properties.
The board determined that a home wouldn’t likely cause a greater local impact than the restaurant did, and it voted unanimously not to deny the project on that basis. However, the board placed conditions on its approval, including the owner submitting a stormwater management and control plan and a landscape design plan featuring native plants, as well as installing a floating debris containment barrier during the home’s construction.
Two neighbors who spoke at the meeting, Deborah Ruhe and Mike Dana, questioned the board’s assumption that the home’s environmental impact would be no more than that of the former Estes restaurant. They argued that the restaurant was seasonal, while the proposed home could be occupied by many people year-round.
But Planning Board Chair Al LeGrow said town rules don’t allow the board to make decisions based on guesses as to what might happen in the future.
“Our role is to follow the ordinances that we have,” LeGrow said.
Planning Board member Lori Rice agreed, saying, “I hear the (neighbors’) argument … but there’s only so much you can project and guess.”
The third question was whether the Planning Board should retain jurisdiction over the decision as to whether the nonconforming project meets the property’s setback requirements “to the greatest practical extent,” or cede that decision to the town’s code enforcement officer.
Given that the project would be built from an existing structure, the board acknowledged there isn’t much else the property owner could do to increase setbacks. Still, it voted to table the jurisdictional question until the property owner returns before the board at a future meeting with a completed landscaping plan.
“We’re making progress, but we want to make sure it’s done to everyone’s satisfaction,” LeGrow said.
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