BEDC offers to serve as conduit; Avesta fence-mending

By Gail Geraghty

Staff Writer

Bridgton residents had their first chance last week to hear directly from representatives of Avesta Housing, Inc. about their plans to build a 21-unit affordable housing complex at 247 Main Street. But because there was little advance notice given by Avesta of the April 26 “community workshop” in the Bridgton Community Center, the meeting only drew around 20 residents.

The informal gathering may have been just the right size, however, as an icebreaker, considering the growing controversy between some residents and municipal officials over the project, which was announced seven months ago by former Economic and Community Development Director Alan Manoian. The tension in evidence when the meeting began had all but disappeared after two hours, when members of the Bridgton Economic Development Corporation (BEDC) offered to take over from the town and work with the agency on its plans.

BEDC Vice President Holly Dvorak invited Avesta President and Chief Executive Officer Dana Totman to attend the corporation’s next, non-public meeting, on Wednesday, May 16, at TD Bank on Main Street. Totman also pledged to follow up with another public meeting for residents sometime in the future.

“You have communicated openly with public officials, but it has not transferred accurately to the community,” Dvorak told Totman. Corporation President Lee Eastman agreed and suggested that the corporation would provide a “better conduit” for the agency as it prepares to formally submit its plans.

“Transparency is going to save you,” Eastman said, but added, “Don’t get me wrong — the corporation wants to see mixed use on that site.”

Totman led the meeting, along with Avesta’s Director of Programs Debora Keller, Development Officer Matthew Peters and Board of Directors Chairman Neal Allen, who is also the Executive Director of the Greater Portland Council of Governments. No selectmen or town government employees were present; Anne Krieg, Bridgton’s new director of planning, economic and community development, did not attend, she said later, because she wanted to afford Avesta the opportunity to “hear concerns and foster relationships” with residents on their own. Planning Board Chairman Steve Collins, along with another board member and alternate, were present. Collins, who did not speak or ask questions, said his purpose in attending was simply “as a set of ears.”

Peters said Avesta was holding off on submitting formal plans until the June vote on an amendment to the Site Plan Review Ordinance that would require them to reserve the ground floor for retail, office, business or professional use. The second and third floors of the project would contain 19 one-bedroom and two 2-bedroom units. Totman said that on several of their projects, they have provided a mixed use by leasing ground floor space to the Southern Maine Area on Aging or other senior-based service organizations.

The housing complex for families that Avesta built at 645 Congress Street in Portland has a cafe and nail salon on the first floor, along with a coin-operated laundry and storage rooms, Totman said. He added that an elderly housing complex they built on Munjoy Hill in Portland has day programs for seniors. Whether such uses would meet the requirements of the amendment is still an unanswered question, Totman said.

“We are giving a lot of thought to non-residential uses on the first floor,” he said. The agency has had discussions with Community Dental, “to see if there’s a synergy there.” Community Dental has been looking at the old Bridgton Hospital building as a possible location for a low-income dental clinic.

The workshop opened with Totman giving a background history of Avesta, which has grown since its founding in 1972 to become the largest nonprofit housing agency in New England. It owns or manages 1,800 apartments in Cumberland and York Counties, 55% of which are for the elderly, and pays a total of $750,000 a year in property taxes.

Totman promised, in response to a question by BEDC member, Mark Lopez, that anything Avesta builds at 247 Main Street will always remain a taxable piece of real estate.

Avesta has both a property management and a real estate development department. Currently, Avesta has at least a half-dozen low-income housing projects in various stages of construction in southern Maine, worth $55 million, and has been aggressively pursuing markets where the demographics show the most need.

Manoian promoted Chapter 11 site

Totman said Avesta’s interest in Bridgton began about a year ago, when Maine Rural Development Authority identified Bridgton as one of seven communities in Cumberland County where there was a high priority for funding affordable housing for the elderly. They looked at Bridgton’s demographics and saw that the town had the second oldest population (Harpswell is number one) in the county and the third lowest in income.

“Clearly, there was a need,” Totman said. They initially looked at seven acres of land owned by Lenny McIntyre just outside Pondicherry Square on Route 117, where the recession had stalled single-family subdivision project. Rural Development and the other funding source, Maine State Housing, had reservations about that site, however, because its topography and steepness of the grade would increase the cost of construction, Totman said.

In looking for alternative sites, Totman said a county official told them to contact Manoian, who  encouraged the agency to consider the Chapter 11 site. That account differs significantly from what Manoian, speaking to the Bridgton Planning Board, said last October. Manoian said at that time, that “Avesta had identified a second site.”

Asked to elaborate, Totman said, “There’s no question in my mind that the former economic development director wanted us to come to that site. We were hearing that, as a representation of the town.” As the project now stands, no other site can be considered, because the funding promised by Maine State Housing is site-specific, Totman said.

Avesta agreed that the 29,000-square-foot property would provide easy accessibility for its residents to downtown services, and benefit the town, too, by redeveloping a blighted property. “We thought that it would make a major contribution to increasing the vitality of Main Street,” Totman said. In January, the agency received preliminary funding approval from Maine State Housing, and Avesta negotiated an option to purchase the 247 Main Street property from owner Zack Sclar. Final funding approval came in March, he added, but by that time the agency learned that the needed changes to Shoreland Zoning rules, approved by voters last December, were under appeal to the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.

Eligible renters would pay a third of their annual income, which under federal low-income guidelines must be under $23,500 a year for a one-bedroom apartment, and $26,800 a year for a two-bedroom unit. A person making $21,000 a year, for example, would pay $7,000 annually to rent there, or $583 a month.

Totman showed slides of several Avesta projects in order to give residents an idea of what the complex would look like. He said the agency has held off on a final design “because of the uncertainty of the ordinances” that may affect the project.

Planning Board Alternate member Roxanne Hagerman asked if the project would be for Bridgton residents only. Totman said some federal regulations would allow the agency to give such a preference, but that typically such preferences are not allowed. “If we can, we will,” he said. Keller said the renters would likely be people who have some kind of connection to the community. Applications to rent are processed in the order that they are received, she added.

Resident Craig Whitaker, an architect, said after listening to the presentation, “I actually think this is better than what I expected.” But he cautioned Avesta officials to seriously consider putting commercial uses on the first floor, noting that Bridgton’s Main Street is considered one of the few still intact traditional Main Streets.

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