Project resurrected AVESTA housing project still viable; timeline could be tight

By Lisa Williams Ackley
Staff Writer

A $4 million dollar 21-unit senior housing complex project that last week appeared to be dead in the water because of Shoreland Zoning regulations in Bridgton’s downtown General Development District now seems to be back on track.

The date of December 13, 2011 has been set by selectmen for a special town referendum to ask voters to amend both the Shoreland Zoning Ordinance and Site Plane Review Ordinance, in order to allow commercial development in the downtown General Development District — making not just the Avesta 21-unit senior housing project doable, but other economic development projects, as well, both Town Manager Mitch Berkowitz and Bridgton’s Economic Development Director Alan Manoian said.

Berkowitz explained that the reason the Maine Department of Environmental Protection would likely agree to the proposed amendment to the Shoreland Zoning Ordinance reducing the square-footage requirement per single-unit residence was because the town has an effective sewer system in place.

“The Maine DEP has no problem, when there’s a public sewer system in place — as long as (a commercial project) is served by municipal water and sewer,” said Berkowitz.

The Avesta senior housing building would be constructed on the former Chapter 11 property bordered by both Depot Street and Gibbs Avenue.

The selectmen voted Oct. 12 to follow the schedule proposed by Town Manager Berkowitz that calls for a joint meeting of the Bridgton Board of Selectmen and Bridgton Planning Board on Oct. 25 and leads up to the day in mid-December when voters will be asked to decide if they want to approve the proposed amendments to the Shoreland Zoning Ordinance and Site Plan Review Ordinance.

The tight timeframe is necessary, or else the town “could not make the proposed changes for Avesta to consider the project at the Main Street site,” Berkowitz said, in a memo to the board dated Oct. 11.

Citing a front page story in last week’s edition of The Bridgton News, Berkowitz, said Oct. 11 that the principal investors of Avesta Housing Investment Group LLC approached the town about an alternate site to a property it has an option on at Crockett Ridge on Harrison Road (Route 117).

“So, they came to us — we did not go to them,” the town manager explained. “We were not in a position to approach anyone, nor did we.”

According to Berkowitz, representatives from Avesta Housing told him they wanted to “talk about a specific site other than what we have an option on (at Crockett Ridge).”

‘Proven track record’

The town manager said there was “a buzz,” following last week’s front-page headline about the Avesta housing project’s presumed demise.

“It was discussed that this (Avesta’s housing complex) would fit well in the walkable downtown in an area where we want to have redevelopment and to work with an entity that has a proven track record,” said Berkowitz. He said the Avesta investors were also told “that they’d have to consider paying taxes.”

Selectman Doug Taft said that, while he is not against the Avesta housing complex proposal, he does not believe in rushing things.

Manoian announced that there is currently a waiting list of 80 seniors in Bridgton who are seeking to have an apartment at Wayside Pines.

“There are 68 on the waiting list at Wayside Pines for a one-bedroom apartment and 12 for two-bedroom apartments,” said Manoian. “These are Bridgton parents and grandparents who would be able (at a housing complex on Main Street) to buy food, go to the movies and restaurants and do their banking, without having to drive a car.”

“In essence, we saw Avesta Housing as a great partnership opportunity,” the director of Economic and Community Development stated.

Manoian referred to the former A & P lot where the former Chapter 11 was located as “one of (Bridgton’s) most valuable commercial sites.”

“So, as Mitch said, we were very pleased when Avesta Housing said, ‘We’re interested in that site,’” Manoian stated.

The economic and community development director said further, “Ultimately, you’re talking about a first class building — three stories, with approximately 7,000 square feet.”

Poverty level ‘epicenter’

“One of the major points in the (Bridgton) Comprehensive of 2006,” Manoian said, “was housing and the need to develop more affordable housing in the downtown center.”

“One final thing about senior citizens in Bridgton,” stated Manoian. “As to demographics — 15.3% of seniors here are living below the poverty level, or on $10,000 per year. Fifteen percent of all Bridgton citizens 65 years of age and over are living below the poverty level, while for Cumberland County it is 10.4%, and 13.6% in Oxford County.”

“This is the disturbing part,” Manoian said further, “19.2% of (all citizens) are living below the poverty line — the percentage for Cumberland County is 7.6% and 12.1% in Oxford County — Bridgton is 19.2%. And, finally, of the total population (in Bridgton), 20.5% are 65 and over — Oxford County is 10.7% — we’re double that.”

“Bridgton lays claim to having the highest below poverty level of anywhere in Cumberland County,” Manoian said. “Right here — we are the epicenter.”

The economic and community development director said that, by having a $4 million dollar building on Main Street, “it mitigates the risk for others to invest in Pondicherry Square…then it becomes catalytic…It seems like a win-win situation all around and it adds to our tax base.”

The town manager explained that the current language in both the Shoreland Zoning and Site Plan Review ordinances would need to be amended, in order to allow development in the downtown General Development District.

Berkowitz said, “As for the Shoreland Zoning Ordinance, many communities — large communities like Biddeford and Lewiston and Auburn have development and are able to encroach (on the riverfronts) there. We need to adjust that (Bridgton SZ Ordinance) with mitigating language.”

The proposed change would replace the square-foot property requirement for single-unit residences in the General Development District from 25,000 square feet to 1,000 square feet, the town manager explained.

We can sit back and let the front page headline (in The Bridgton News Oct. 13) be the obituary (for the Avesta housing project and others)…or we can be proactive.”

“Changing a local ordinance has to be by ballot,” Berkowitz said further.

Referring to the Dec. 13 referendum vote and the constricted timeframe required to meet it, Berkowitz said, “What it means is, if we want to take advantage of this opportunity, we have to work quickly.”

Berkowitz then asked the selectmen if they were willing “to take some political heat” should they decide to approve the referendum schedule that would allow the Avesta project to move forward.

Selectman Doug Taft said that, while he is not against the proposed senior housing complex, “I guess I’m one of those who thinks we’re moving too fast — things done in haste seem to come back and haunt us…I want to make sure we have input from all parties.”

Bear Zaidman said, “This seems to me like spot zoning.”

Ray Turner said he wanted to know why Berkowitz and Manoian hadn’t thought of changing the requirements for commercial development in the General Development District before now, when a proposed project was what brought the matter to the forefront.

“I agree with Ray,” Selectman Bernie King said. “Whether it was Avesta or anybody else — it has been brought to the forefront, which probably should have been done a long time ago.”

Selectman Paul Hoyt said he feels it is the right time to consider changing the requirements in the General Development District.

“I think it makes sense,” said Hoyt. “I think it’s true — a lot of times opportunities are missed. So, if we can correct things that need to be done, I see no reason why we shouldn’t go forward.”

Selectmen Chairman Arthur Triglione Sr. said, “I’m in favor of this 100%. I feel very strongly it is a win-win situation for the town…The other thing is, I’m all in favor of moving things along as fast as we can. Yeah, we may overlook something, but let’s move it along.”

Selectman Woody Woodward, who owns a rental property in the General Development District refrained from the board’s formal discussion on the matter, as well as abstained from voting to go forward with the referendum vote on proposed amendments to the two ordinances in December

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