Local preference: defensible or not?

By Gail Geraghty

Staff Writer

A year and a half and $5,500 in legal advice later, Bridgton Selectmen found out Tuesday that they need to rethink just how narrowly they want to define local preference when it comes to new affordable housing projects.

Town Attorney Richard Spencer has advised the cautious approach, to include not only Bridgton residents but also their relatives and employees who work in town. But to Selectman Paul Hoyt, such an approach defeats the whole purpose of what the proposed ordinance is trying to do.

“I might be wrong, but when this was brought forward originally, it was (intended) for Bridgton residents,” said Hoyt. “My uncle, who lives in Arizona, I don’t see why he should have a preference for housing that is in Bridgton.”

Hoyt’s comment came as he discussed changes from the original draft that were recommended by Spencer in order to make the ordinance as legally defensible as possible, in keeping with federal Housing and Urban Development rules barring housing discrimination. Just prior to Hoyt’s comments, Chairman Doug Taft — mindful of the time already spent discussing the issue — had suggested sending along the proposal for a final draft, in preparation for a Town Meeting vote next June.

The ordinance was drafted over a year ago by Community Development Committee member Mark Lopez and Anne Krieg, Bridgton’s Director of Planning, Economic and Community Development, and is based in part on a statute in Massachusetts. During their failed bid in 2012 to site an affordable housing project in Bridgton, Avesta Housing Corporation officials had said they could not, by law, limit their apartments to Bridgton residents, and some locals cried foul. Bridgton would be the first municipality in Maine to adopt a local housing preference ordinance, and as such, the Maine Municipal Association and the Maine State Housing Agency have both declined to give Bridgton any advice on the language to use.

Town Manager Mitch Berkowitz said on Tuesday that Spencer’s suggested revisions focused on making the ordinance defensible. “We don’t want to set up some kind of smokescreen that is so narrow, it offends the sensibilities of the Fair Housing Act,” he said.

Selectman Bob McHatton, who wanted to drop consideration of local preference after Avesta abandoned its plans in Bridgton, said, “A resident of Bridgton is someone who lives in Bridgton. I don’t think you want to continue to spend money on every single word in this ordinance.”

Taft said the board has discussed the ordinance several times already. “We’ve had this on the table a couple of times. I thought we answered all the questions.”

But Hoyt disagreed, saying earlier discussions focused on concerns raised by others, and not the board.

He argued that by adding relatives and employees who work in Bridgton, the ordinance could have the effect of displacing someone with long-term ties to Bridgton who may have only recently moved away. “When you say, ‘Get it right,’ there are things in there now that I don’t want to see in there, unless they have to be,” Hoyt said. He specifically noted language referring to “active veterans with family members in the greater Bridgton area,” and asked whether that meant that someone, say, from Naples, who is an active veteran, would then have preference over someone from Bridgton.

“I don’t think that’s what the people wanted,” Hoyt said.

Berkowitz suggested a compromise in giving his next set of directives to Spencer. “If you want me to ask the attorney if I can make a defensible ordinance that deals just with Bridgton, I’ll do it.” He added, “That may be an animal you can produce, but you’re going to spend a lot of money defending it.”

Berkowitz noted that the reference to family members came from a person in the audience during one of the discussions on the issue. “Please guide me as best you can,” on what language should take priority, he said. “The attorney is saying that if we restrict it to Bridgton residents, that may be an ‘Achilles heel.’”

Asked whether the board set a cap on how much could be spent on legal fees in researching the ordinance, Taft said the board discussed, but did not vote on a set amount of money. Berkowitz said Spencer was paid $3,500 for his first workup and around $2,200 to address subsequent questions. He will similarly be paid to address the questions arising out of Tuesday’s discussion.

 

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