In Cumberland, the natural landscape should shall be maintained

In Cumberland, the natural landscape should shall be maintained

CUMBERLAND – Officials are hoping that replacing “should” and “encouraged” to “shall” and “required” when laying down stipulations for developers will pay off in the form of a maintained landscape in the future.

The Town Council last week passed the amendment to the zoning ordinance related to landscaping requirements, following a recommendation from Planning and Community Development Director Jonathan Stevens and the Planning Board to give the board more authority when dealing with developers.

Here are some examples of how the ordinance is changing:

• To the maximum extent possible, the natural landscape should shall be preserved. Landscaping should shall serve as a unifying element, creating continuous patterns along the street edge and integrating the various elements of site design into the plan with the surrounding landscape elements and processes.

• All areas not covered by structures, service yards, driveways, paths, or similar features shall be landscaped. The following are planting design concepts that should shall be used whenever possible:

• Plants should shall also accent the cultural landscape, providing such elements as rhythm, spatial structure, color, texture, etc. to the built environment.

• Removal of trees (over five inches in diameter) along roadways should shall be minimized and in rights-of-way is prohibited.

Stevens said he’s grateful to the council for last week’s unanimous endorsement of the changes. Using “shall” instead of “should,” as well as other changes, will close loopholes when it comes to preserving Cumberland’s natural and cultural landscape, helping the Planning Board “enforce and negotiate with a stronger hand with developers.” He said it will hopefully prevent the clear-cutting and stripping that’s occurred so often over the years, and that elements of a property that have existed for so long will be maintained in the final development.

Previous efforts to crack down on developers such as Jim McKee were thwarted somewhat by the weaker language found in the ordinance. Officials have said the word “should” would work well enough if developers simply followed what they’re supposed to do instead of asking for forgiveness later.

These changes were first introduced in February, said Stevens, but the pandemic delayed its final approval. The council’s ordinance subcommittee gave the revisions a nod in July.

Joe Luca, chairman of the Cumberland Conservation Commission, said the changes are so important to the town and the commission, helping to eliminate the events that have caused its members so much consternation over the years.

Invasive vegetation has become ubiquitous in town as more developers have stripped out native plants, said Luca, and those changes are really starting to negatively impact native insects and birds.

Planning Board member Chris Butler said members have considered a number of subdivisions proposed in heavily wooded areas of town in recent years, and there have been many concerns from the board and neighbors of those developments on the proposed clearing. The board has tried to work really hard with applicants to limit the amount of vegetation needing to be cut down to make way for the project and protecting the natural character of the landscape, he said. At times they’ve been successful, but at other times they haven’t been, and the important lesson from those cases is that officials need to be more specific and detailed in their decisions about what they expect applicants to do and not do when it comes to land clearing, establishing limits of disturbance, and maintaining the natural character as much as possible, he said.

The way the ordinance is written, said Butler, even if the board spells out what a developer should do, it’s very difficult for Stevens and the building official to hold them accountable.

These changes should prove reassuring to those who sometimes feel that development is getting in the way of preserving the rural character that drew so many people to Cumberland, said Butler.

The rewritten ordinance still allows some discretion, he said, giving the board the ability to provide some relief if members feel it’s warranted. For example, if a stone wall is in the way of the project, the board could grant permission to have it moved.

He thanked Stevens and Solicitor Kelley Morris Salvatore for their work on the revisions.

Councilor Lisa Beaulieu also expressed her appreciation, saying the council is often the entity blamed and questioned when things don’t go the way they’re supposed to with a development. She said this prevents deeper changing of the town’s fabric and believes officials will look back 20 years from now and realize they did some good work.

“I think it all matters and these little changes will have a big difference,” she said.