Board kills West Harpswell village district proposal

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HARPSWELL — A proposal that would have concentrated development in West Harpswell has failed due to overwhelming opposition from neighbors.

The plan would have created a “village district” centered around Mitchell Field, where smaller lots could be carved out of existing properties. The idea behind the zoning change was to encourage lower-income and working families back to town by making land more affordable.

The Comprehensive Plan Implementation Committee, which worked on the plan, also hoped to focus future construction into already developed areas and preserve more rural parts of town.

But many West Harpswell residents opposed the idea on the grounds that it would hurt their property values, alter the character of the area and unfairly target their neighborhood.

The Board of Selectmen voted 2-1 on Feb. 16 against putting the proposal on the warrant for the March 10 annual Town Meeting.

At the Feb. 16 meeting, Jim Knight, a former selectmen who lives in West Harpswell, disagreed with the committee’s finding that his neighborhood is the most suitable in town for increased development and density.

“My local community is a rural district and I want it to remain that way,” Knight said. He used posters and data from the assessing office to argue that West Harpswell is actually more rural than other parts of town.

Former Selectman Gordon Weil, who also lives in West Harpswell, said there isn’t enough new development happening in Harpswell to require a growth district. He also argued against the unfairness of the situation.

“This is discriminatory,” Weil said. “This is really singling out a specific part of town and zoning that part of town differently … probably over the objection of the people in that part of town.”

And Bill O’Connell disagreed with the committee’s assumption that if the area is zoned differently, families will move in.

“Just because we have this system doesn’t mean people are going to be able to afford the housing,” he said.

Only one resident, Mary Ann Nahf, defended the district proposal at a Feb. 16 public hearing. She agreed with the committee’s assertion that West Harpswell, due to soil and water table characteristics, could better handle development than other parts of town.

Because of the barrage of criticism at the Feb. 16 meeting and one on Dec. 13, 2011, Selectmen Jim Henderson and Alison Hawkes moved not to put the zoning change on the Town Meeting warrant. Chairwoman Elinor Multer said she disagreed with the proposal, but thought the town should have a chance to vote on it.

Reached after the meeting, Chris Hall, the chairman of the Comprehensive Plan Implementation Committee, was surprised and disappointed by the board’s decision.

“The selectmen have been aware of what we’ve been doing and what direction we’ve been going, and if that wasn’t the direction they wanted things to go in, then they had ample time to discuss with us what other direction they wanted,” he said.

Hall said he was frustrated that both public hearings on the village districts were dominated by Weil and especially Knight, whose arguments he called “half-truths” and “personal opinions.” He said he regretted not interrupting to correct what he said were inaccuracies in Knight’s presentation.

Even though the current iteration of the village district proposal is dead, Hall said he still hopes there could be a growth zone in Harpswell. But he wasn’t sure where it would be.

Emily Guerin can be reached at 781-3661 ext.123 or Follow her on Twitter: @guerinemily.