Shoreland rules shot down; Avesta dumps plan

By Gail Geraghty

Staff Writer

Avesta is abandoning its plans for a low-income housing project in downtown Bridgton in the wake of voters’ overwhelming rejection Tuesday of amendments to minimum lot size standards in the Shoreland Zone along Stevens Brook. The margin was nearly two-to-one, with only 912 residents voting yes to the 1,698 residents who voted no.

“We were surprised and discouraged to encounter an anti-development sentiment among some Bridgton residents,” Avesta Communications Manager Mindy Woerter said Wednesday. “In our 40 years, Avesta has worked with many municipalities around the state and found that the best partnerships come when communities are excited to work with us to improve the lives of their residents.”

The outcome, likely influenced by the strong opposition campaign that surfaced in the final weeks before the vote, leaves the town in the awkward position of having to accept a lesser-relaxation of standards, outlined in February by the state Department of Environmental Protection, which the town spent over $10,000 in legal fees to challenge.

The vote also leaves Avesta Housing, Inc. without the “1,000-square-feet per bedroom” density it requires to build its proposed 24 one-bedroom apartment project on the former Chapter 11 property at 247 Main Street.

The nonprofit Portland-based housing agency has also decided not to reapply for funding at any alternative downtown site in Bridgton. Because its funding source through MaineHousing is site-specific, Avesta cannot consider an alternative site in Bridgton, unless it makes a completely new application for funding under MaineHousing’s Low Income Tax Credit program.

“As a result of this vote, Avesta Housing is no longer pursuing this site. The town will miss out on an opportunity to redevelop a blighted site and add a $5 million development to the tax rolls,” Woerter said. “But most significantly, senior citizens in Bridgton will not have access to much needed affordable housing. We are evaluating our options, which include exploring many other communities.”

Tuesday’s referendum was widely seen as an up-or-down vote on the Avesta project, although the Shoreland Zoning amendment language before voters would have affected all downtown properties within 250 feet of Stevens Brook. This includes both the General Development I District, extending from the Stevens Brook Bridge to just before the Chapter 11 property on Lower Depot Street, and the General Development 11 District, including roughly half of the Chapter 11 property as well as lots on the south side of Main Street at Pondicherry Square and the former Paris Farmers Union property and Rite Aid on the Portland Road.

The Bridgton Board of Selectmen are expected to discuss the next steps the town needs to take at their next meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 13, which begins at 6 p.m. in the Selectmen’s meeting room in the Bridgton Municipal Complex.

A growing schism

The divide between town government officials and some residents over the Shoreland Zoning language grew wider after the DEP issued its “Corrected Conditional Order” on Feb. 23 to the first set of Shoreland Zoning amendments approved by voters on Dec. 13, 2011. Only after the corrected order was issued did the public and selectmen learn that the DEP had told the town a month prior to the vote that it wasn’t going to accept the town’s wording for the lot size amendments.

An atmosphere of mistrust surfaced and was later exacerbated by news that the downtown sewer system did not have the excess capacity needed to accommodate any new users, much less Avesta’s high-capacity sewer needs. Also, many residents were dismayed to learn that Avesta was not planning to provide a commercial presence on the ground floor of the housing complex, despite assurances by former Community and Economic Development Director Alan Manoian that that would be the case.

Led by a recommendation by the Comprehensive Plan Committee, the Planning Board crafted an amendment to the Site Plan Ordinance requiring lots of 20,000 square feet or greater to reserve the first floor of Main Street development projects for retail, office or professional use. Voters overwhelmingly approved that amendment in June.

By that time, Town Attorney Richard Spencer, at the board’s direction, had negotiated new minimum lot size language that would be acceptable to the DEP — and also would accommodate Avesta’s needs for the Bridgton project. But the changes were not finalized in time for a June vote, so the board opted to wait until the November elections.

Tensions flare at end of meeting

The mounting tension spilled over at the very end of the last selectmen’s meeting, when Chairman Paul Hoyt asked the board to vote on whether the Comprehensive Plan Committee exceeded its authority in asking Anne Krieg, who replaced Manoian as the town’s Director of Planning, Economic and Community Development, to issue a press release stating that the CPC had voted not to support the Shoreland Zoning amendments.

CPC member Glen “Bear” Zaidman quickly corrected Town Manager Mitch Berkowitz’s statement that the committee asked Krieg to issue a press release. He said Krieg offered to issue a statement, as the committee was discussing how they would let the public know about their vote before Tuesday’s referendum.

“Someone asked if Anne could do a press release and she said she could if she was directed by the committee — and we asked her to do that,” Zaidman said.

Hoyt said his issue wasn’t with the fact that the CPC took a vote, but that its members wanted to make a public statement about it. The committee’s amended charge did not give them that authority, he said.

“They are reporting to us,” Hoyt said. Selectmen themselves have consciously decided not to take a vote to make a stand on issues before the voters, unless they are of a fiscal nature. “They absolutely do represent us when they are doing their work. They’re an arm of the selectboard.”

Selectman Doug Taft disagreed, saying “If there is a committee that feels strongly enough, I see no problem with what they’re doing.”  The board voted not to allow the CPC to issue their own statements.

Zaidman said the CPC, who backed the Shoreland Zoning amendments when they were first proposed, decided to take a stand now because “the committee feels this is not in the best interest of the downtown area.” The Bridgton Economic Development Corporation also voted to oppose the amendments.

Board member Woody Woodward said he is concerned that residents might perceive that the CPC is speaking for the town.

“We’ve heard from people now saying that this is what the town is thinking, that it’s a done deal, that the town is going to be doing this or that, and it’s not just the Comprehensive Plan, it’s the CDC (Community Development Committee) as well. That’s why it’s the de-facto representation of the board; it’s (the perception) that it’s something that’s being supported by the entire town. And that bothers me.”

Woodward added, “I don’t care what happens with this (Shoreland Zoning amendments) to be honest. Because I keep hearing people telling me I’m pro-Avesta. And the problem is we’ve taken this from the generalized issue…and we’ve spent thousands of dollars to get it put back the way it was. Now that we’ve done that, they say, well, don’t do it. And let’s be honest, it’s primarily a one-issue situation here. We danced around that. It shouldn’t be a one-issue situation but it is. If the majority vote no, that’s fine, but I think we’ve got to look at the long-term issue on this — and we’ve got to look at our believability.”


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