Local preference tabled after reconsideration

By Gail Geraghty

Staff Writer

Stone Surface has now relocated to the former Chapter 11 property on Main Street. A new building façade and stacked slabs of granite in the parking lot testify to signs of industry and a new life for the prime downtown commercial lot.

But memories of what might have been — a three-story 24-unit apartment project — linger on, along with a question: should Bridgton still consider a Local Preference Housing Ordinance?

Selectmen thought so in February, when they voted to send along a draft Local Preference Housing Ordinance for a public hearing and June Town Meeting vote.

But, on March 26, member Bob McHatton had second thoughts, saying he wanted to reconsider his earlier approval.

“We don’t have any issue before us now,” McHatton said, since Avesta Housing, Inc. dropped its plans for the 24-unit project shortly after a townwide vote in December that rejected lot size density amendments needed to make it viable. McHatton didn’t see why the town should spend $2,500 on legal fees to review the local preference language, “just to put something in place that isn’t going to be used for a while.”

The majority of the board agreed with him, voting 3–2 to reconsider the Feb. 26 decision to move forward with the draft local preference ordinance. After voting to reconsider, the board then agreed unanimously to table all consideration of local preference until July 1. Members Doug Taft and Bernie King were against reconsidering the earlier vote, both saying they believed Bridgton needs a means to ensure its residents will have first preference on renting units in any future affordable housing projects.

“This is a chance, for once, to do something beforehand, instead of management by crisis,” Taft said. “This is a chance to be ahead of the game.”

But member Woody Woodward doesn’t think the nonprofit housing industry is going to be eager anytime soon to risk developing a project in Bridgton, after Avesta’s experience. Avesta officials were led to believe that their plans would be enthusiastically embraced by Bridgton residents, when former Bridgton Community and Economic Development Director Alan Manoian first announced the plans in October of 2011.

But residents were quick to challenge, and criticize, the project, and did so throughout 2012, with concerns centered primarily around its use of a prime commercial lot on Main Street. Of strong secondary concern, however, was the project’s selection criteria for tenants, which contained no assurances that Bridgton residents would be given any preference in the processing of applications for tenancy.

“If I were a nonprofit, I’d be real cautious,” Woodward said. Avesta had a sales contract with lot owner Zack Sclar and had secured $4.5 million in federal and state funding for the project. The housing developer drew up preliminary plans and had presented them before the Bridgton Planning Board, and had met informally with residents twice on the project. The handwriting was on the wall, however, just prior to the December Shoreland Zoning vote, when the questions and reservations voiced by residents morphed into an outright opposition campaign, complete with protest signs.

Woodward said the town of Bridgton “would have to put aside a good amount of money to defend ourselves” if it enacted a Local Housing Preference Ordinance, since it would be the first town in the state to do so. The federal Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination against any class of people in providing housing choices, although local preference has been upheld in some states, such as Massachusetts. When Avesta officials were asked whether they would consider giving preference to Bridgton residents for its Chapter 11 project, they said they could not do so, because their funding sources required adherance to the Fair Housing Act.

Woodward said he didn’t want Bridgton “to become our own little fiefdom” by turning away nonresidents who may nevertheless have strong Bridgton ties through family or work. He cited language in the draft allowing nonresidents to be considered only if 75% of the units are dedicated to Bridgton residents.

As he spoke, several audience members rose to dispute his statements, among them members of the Community Development Committee that created the draft language. Chairman Paul Hoyt did not allow public comment, however, because the discussion involved a motion to reconsider an earlier vote.

McHatton said he wasn’t opposed to a Local Preference Ordinance in theory, but that he just didn’t see the need to spend time and resources developing it at this time. Hoyt noted that the board listed local preference as #8 on a priority list of projects developed recently, and that the town “is at 160% of being over-budget on legal” expenses in the budget.

Hoyt said he didn’t have a problem bringing it up at a later date, but that perhaps now was not the time.

The CDC’s draft ordinance requires developers of subsidized housing to allocate 75% of its rental units during initial sales under a lottery system to four preference categories, defined as 1. Bridgton residents; 2. Parents or children of Bridgton residents; 3. Employees of businesses located in Bridgton; and 4. Military veterans. The ordinance would create, in effect, two pools of applicants — the first being a “local preference pool,” those qualifying under the four preference categories, and the second being an “open pool,” of all other applicants. A lottery would then be conducted on a specified date.

After all the units are filled, subsequent lotteries would then be held as units became available. Applicants in the local preference pool that were not chosen would have their names added to the open pool for the open pool lottery.

 

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