Bath panel OKs Portland developer's plan for Huse School housing

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BATH — The Planning Board on Tuesday unanimously approved requests from the Szanton Co. to convert the former John E.L. Huse Memorial School to mixed-income rental housing.

The Portland-based developer wants to create 58 or 59 residential apartments, with almost half in a new northeast wing.

Along with local approvals, the project also requires financing through the Maine State Housing Authority.

Szanton sought a land-use amendment to allow for contract zoning on the property, as well as subdivision, contract zoning, site plan and developmental subdivision approvals.

The company needs contract zoning to provide “laxity in setback, yard area, and density,” according to a May 26 memo from Planning Director Andrew Deci to the Planning Board.

The City Council must also approve the contract zone, which in return requires a public benefit from the developer. In this case, the proposed benefits include moving the school’s playground closer to a nearby ballfield, upgrading the playground equipment, and improving a basketball court south of the ballfield. Connectivity and walkability enhancements are also proposed.

Developmental subdivision approval was required to put residential units in a nonresidential building, according to Deci.

The company heard from two people who support the project, but wanted to make sure Szanton would be careful to prevent harm to neighboring structures from blasting, Nathan Szanton, managing principal of the Szanton Co., said Wednesday.

He noted that some limited blasting may occur to clear the Huse School foundation for the addition, and that pre-blast surveys would be conducted, including photographs and videos of the foundations of nearby buildings.

The City Council in March approved selling the more than 33,000-square-foot building to Szanton for $150,000, or $25,000 less than the city’s previous asking price.

Szanton has a contract to purchase the building and surrounding land. The property would be subdivided into a municipal band building and ballfields, to be retained by the city, and the 2.49-acre Huse School lot, which Szanton would own.

Ninety parking spaces would be on the property, including 63 strictly for apartment residents, and four for the band. Of the remaining 23 spaces, four would be for either the apartments or band on a first-come, first-served basis, and the balance would be available exclusively for the band during practice hours, and for the apartments the rest of the time, Szanton said.

“It’s a shared parking arrangement with the band,” he said Tuesday.

About 25 percent of the units would be rented at market rate, with the rest income-restricted. A household of two earning up to $28,550 annually would be able to rent a one-bedroom unit for $669 a month, including heat and hot water, according to the company, which has said the housing would not be a Section 8 project.

The company screens its tenants, conducts personal interviews, credit and criminal background checks, and consults applicants’ previous landlords, Szanton said.

Szanton will know by December if his company’s MaineHousing affordable housing tax credit funding application is successful. If so, it could close on the property in late spring 2016, and open the new apartments a year later.

If Szanton does not receive the credits, an agreement with the city would be extended a year to allow a second application in October 2016, with a closing in spring 2017.

The council voted in April 2014 to sell the 73-year-old building – last used until 2010 by the Regional School Unit 1 central office – for use as senior assisted living. But that deal fell through, and the property stayed on the market for $175,000.

Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or Follow him on Twitter: @learics.

A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.