Berkowitz denies acting as Avesta’s agent

By Gail Geraghty

Staff Writer

Bridgton Town Manager Mitch Berkowitz on Tuesday denied that he was “acting as an agent” for Avesta Housing, Inc. in their as-yet unveiled plans to build an affordable housing complex in Pondicherry Square.

The question was posed by Chuck Renneker during the public comment period, sparking renewed questions by residents over whether town officials have acted improperly in paving the way for a developer who has yet to submit plans for the project to the planning board.

Berkowitz characterized Avesta’s application for a sewer allocation at the former Chapter 11 property at 247 Main Street as “exploratory” in nature. The housing agency has an option on the property but does not yet own it, and allocation requests can only be made by property owners, according to Sewer Committee member Glen “Bear” Zaidman.

Berkowitz said his role, since the departure of former Economic and Community Development Director Alan Manoian, has been as a “point person” in helping to answer their questions, not as their advocate or agent. He said Avesta wrote a letter to the sewer department, “And I opened it,” and took it to Code Enforcement Officer Robbie Baker. Once calculations indicated that the town’s system might not be able to handle the sewer request, Berkowitz said he told Avesta’s Project Manager Matt Peters that the agency may need to finance capacity improvements to the system for the project to go forward.

“There’s been no written offer to provide (sewer) allocation to Avesta,” Berkowitz said, adding, “We’ve since been put on notice that we may not even have that (allocation) and those costs would be borne by (Avesta).”

Berkowitz’s explanation didn’t satisfy Community Development Committee member Mark Lopez, who wondered why Avesta is named “twice by reference, once by name,” in the town’s appeal of the Department of Environmental Protection’s conditional order on new shoreland zoning rules for the downtown. Why not other property owners in Pondicherry Square, such as the Macdonalds, he asked?

“That’s why the perception exists that we’re bending over backward for one applicant,” said Lopez. “And as you said to me, Mitch, ‘Perception is reality.’”

Berkowitz said Avesta, by virtue of the option it holds on the Chapter 11 property, also has the right to file an appeal with the DEP as a party of interest. The town’s appeal is scheduled to be formally heard by the Board of Environmental Protection on May 3 in Augusta, and an informal review with DEP staff and the Attorney General’s office is scheduled for this Thursday in Bridgton. However, he added, if (Avesta) shows up (at the DEP), they’re on their own,” Berkowitz said.

Selectmen Chairman Art Triglione said, “We’re not trying to get Avesta in. In fact, based on their latest proposal (no commercial space in the building), I hope they don’t come in.”

Selectman Woody Woodward said both the board and Berkowitz have repeatedly denied any special relationship with Avesta, but “the public believes the rumors because the people are out there spreading (the rumors)” that the board is lying, and that Berkowitz is “cooking the books” to generate sewer allocation figures favorable to Avesta.

“You asked us who has business interests (with Avesta), no one did. If you’ve got a question, ask it,” Woodward said. “I’m tired of this. This used to be a nice town where people would discuss things publicly and sensibly. Please don’t go out and start spreading rumors.”

Resident Barry DeNofrio said the recent accusatory atmosphere in town politics sends “a real mixed message” when stacked up alongside the economic marketing campaign outlined earlier in the meeting by Bridgton Economic Development Corporation President Lee Eastman. “The rumor mills have to stop,” he said. “You blindside, and you control the agenda,” drawing energy away from more productive efforts.

Lopez said, “So, freedom of speech has to stop?”

Woodward replied, “I’m asking people to be mature and not spread rumors. But, you’re right. You have every right to do that. (The question is), is it good for the town?”

Renneker said the questions will stop when the town stops playing such an active role in Avesta’s development proposal. “I’m saying everybody leave Avesta alone. Refer them to the economic development corporation. Leave them alone!”

Nelle Ely said that, in her career as a real estate professional, she never went to a town manager. “Go to the economic development corporation. That will take him off the hot seat.”

“I’m sure he wants to get off it,” said Triglione.

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