Legal advice on local preference must wait

By Gail Geraghty

Staff Writer

Citing deficits already incurred in the budget for legal expenses, the Bridgton Board of Selectmen voted Tuesday to put off asking the town attorney to research a local preference ordinance for affordable housing until the next budget year begins on July 1.

The town asked Maine Municipal Association to provide an opinion on whether an affordable housing local preference ordinance would be legally defensible, but “They wouldn’t touch it,” said Town Manager Mitch Berkowitz.

The reason, as stated by MMA’s Legal Services Department Assistant Director Richard Flewelling, is that no one on his staff has sufficient background or expertise to advise the town — if Bridgton enacted such an ordinance, it would be the first of its kind in the state.

Anne Krieg, Bridgton’s Director of Planning, Economic and Community Development, said in a memo that there was an affordable housing project in Bar Harbor, where she last worked, that administered local preference, “but it was the choice of the (Maine State) Housing Authority to do it that way and not by local ordinance.”

The Community Development Committee broached the idea to selectmen of a local preference ordinance for affordable housing earlier this month. Krieg, in a memo to Flewelling, said she has worked with the so-called 40B law in Massachusetts that allows a percentage of a subsidized project’s units to be reserved for local residents, with municipal employees and teachers included.

“I do know this empowerment and it has worked very well to give a great benefit to the municipality, so I support the concept,” Krieg wrote. With 40B, she said that in return for allowing local preference, the developer “gets an increase in density, not otherwise allowed in zoning, so they can build affordably and hold a (certain percentage) profit.”

Bridgton doesn’t have density requirements other than those that apply to parking, she noted. She asked whether Bridgton would be therefore violating the Fair Housing Act by possibly “penalizing an applicant for their funding source” that another private developer of multi-family units with usual bank financing would have to do. The Fair Housing Act says a municipality cannot discriminate based on financing.

Avesta Housing, Inc. has secured three sources of funding for its proposed $4 million, 21-unit affordable housing project in Pondicherry Square. One of those funding sources is federal Rural Development money; another is low income tax credit financing from the federal Housing and Urban Development. Both sources are administered by Maine State Housing.

Krieg said in her memo that HUD allows local preference for persons who are homeless or have been involuntarily displaced. Maine State Housing allows a preference system for Section 8 vouchers as well, she noted.

“So, if HUD allows local preference in Section 8, can we?” Krieg asked.

Since MMA cannot answer those questions, selectmen on Tuesday realized they would need to, once again, employ the services of Town Attorney Richard Spencer, who has spent a significant amount of time advising the town on how to proceed with its appeal of the Department of Environmental Protection’s conditional order for Shoreland Zoning in the General Development II District. Berkowitz did not say Tuesday just how far in the red the legal services budget was.

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