Local preference lives despite lack of a threat

By Gail Geraghty

Staff Writer

Strong objections failed to convince the majority of the Bridgton Selectmen Tuesday to drop plans to draft a Local Preference Ordinance, now that Avesta Housing’s subsidized housing plans are history.

The board rejected, 2­–3, a motion to let the matter drop, instead voting to table consideration until its next meeting on July 23. At that time, they’ll take a closer look at draft language created by The Community Development Committee around a year ago, when Avesta’s 24-unit apartment complex plans in Bridgton were still active.

The issue arose as the board sought to fulfill its promise to clarify what issues should remain as priorities in the new fiscal year. Both Paul Hoyt and Bob McHatton said it made no sense to spend what could be as much as $3,000 in taxpayer money to ensure that Bridgton residents are given first choice when applying for subsidized housing.

“With the way Avesta Housing was treated, we may not see (another subsidized housing proposal) for another five, 10 or 15 years,” McHatton said, referring to the sustained public outcry that erupted over putting a three-story low-income housing project on a prime retail lot in the heart of downtown. The outcry caused voters to refuse to relax lot size density requirements, effectively killing the project. “This is spending up to $3,000 over nothing. I think it is an absolute waste of taxpayers’ money.”

Hoyt was likewise in favor of dropping plans to create an ordinance which, if enacted, would be the first of its kind in the state.

Hoyt asked, “What problem are we fixing?” He noted that the town has received little evidence to suggest that such an ordinance could withstand a legal challenge under federal Fair Housing Laws prohibiting special treatment based on residency.

At informational forums, Avesta said it could not, under current Maine law, impose restrictions based on residency. The developer, which would have used income as the primary guideline, conceded that non-residents could be most, if not all, of the tenants, but said such a scenario would be highly unlikely.

After Doug Taft, Bernie King and Ken Murphy voted against Hoyt and McHatton, Hoyt said the board had a responsibility to enlist legal help with what would, if enacted by voters, be a precedent-setting ordinance.

“It might not make it bulletproof, but we need to make it the best possible ordinance that we can,” Hoyt said.

Town Manager Mitch Berkowitz said the only case in which the town would not be obligated to seek legal assistance would be if the ordinance were put forward through a citizen’s petition. He rejected the notion, as suggested by resident Dave Crowell, that Bridgton could simply borrow its language from similar ordinances enacted in other states.

“Whenever you carve out a certain group” to receive a benefit denied to others, there is a legal risk, Berkowitz said, “so we can’t afford to rely on some individual plagiarization.”

Taft acknowledged that currently there are not any proposals before the town to build subsidized housing, but said there might be in the future, “and we would be remiss not to take care of our local residents first.” He added that it’s always better “to be ahead of the game” instead of reacting to an unexpected development.

“In fact, we may be saving some future legal fees,” if the ordinance is challenged at some point in the future.

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