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"Mainely" Behind Nonconformists
by Ron Davis

An attempt by a Maine shopping center to stop a neighbor’s controversial expansion plans has apparently failed.

The shopping center is Rockland Plaza, in Rockland, and the neighbor is a building materials supply company that seeks to enlarge its store and add parking to accommodate increased business traffic. By so doing, however, the supplier needs the approval of a plan for the site that currently violates local zoning laws.

Rockland city officials have allowed the violation because it was "grandfathered" when city planners created a new set of zoning provisions a dozen or so years ago. But the proposed expansion project of the supply company still wouldn’t bring the property up to the level of zoning law minimum requirements.

The shopping center owner therefore contends that the expansion plans of the supply company "perpetuate" nonconformity. And, the owner adds, the current Rockland zoning laws state, "In no case shall a structure be reconstructed or replaced so as to increase its nonconformity." In fact, those zoning laws encourage property owners with pre-existing zoning infractions to try to conform to current standards--or at least reduce nonconformities.

Moreover, even the Supreme Court of Maine has ruled that "the policy of zoning is to abolish nonconforming uses as swiftly as justice will permit."

The shopping center’s arguments were unpersuasive, however. The Rockland Zoning Board of Appeals voted to permit the supply company to expand, finding that the building plans "would favor conformity."

The shopping center owner therefore asked the courts to block the expansion plans of the supply company.

The Maine Supreme Court upheld the decision of local Rockland officials, explaining, "The Zoning Appeals Board’s interpretation of zoning laws are reasonable and supported by the plain language of the laws.... The renovations and expansions actually reduce the nonconformity of the supply company’s property rather than increase it. Although the drafters of the zoning laws intended that nonconformity be reduced, it is also clear that even the strictest interpretation of the law does not require their immediate and complete elimination in contravention of its plain language, which provides for numerous exemptions and exclusions. The Board therefore committed no error in its interpretation of the zoning laws." (Rockland Plaza v. City of Rockland, 772 A.2d 256 [Me. 2001])

Decision: June 2001 Published: August 2001



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