Brunswick Planning Board OKs Habitat project over neighbors' concerns

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BRUNSWICK — A recently approved Habitat for Humanity development on Cumberland Street is raising questions about whether the economic viability of the project outweighs density and safety concerns.

The Planning Board on July 13 approved the site plan for the three-unit development on a vacant lot at 46 Cumberland St. by a vote of 3-1, but not before residents of the neighborhood claimed the project compromises Habitat’s mission of providing affordable housing.

Board member Jeff Peters, who opposed the decision, said the project looked good on paper, but wouldn’t work.

“I can’t support this,” Peters said. “We are not being honest when we do something like this.”

Neighbors of the project agreed, saying the development’s buildings would be too close together and the common area would force children to play in busy streets. High Street resident Chris Ledwick called the project a “nicely rendered tenement building.”

“If this were a development for people of regular income, perhaps middle class, this wouldn’t be good enough for them,” Ledwick said. “But because they’re low income, they don’t need the room. Their kids don’t need to play in safe yards.”

The project includes a two-unit duplex at the corner of Cumberland and Cushing streets, and a single-unit dwelling fronting Cushing. The development will be on a 0.2-acre lot that was once home to a five-unit apartment building that burned down in 2002.

Opponents argued that a third single-unit home crowds the development. However, officials from Habitat for Humanity/7 Rivers Maine and the Brunswick Housing Authority said the third unit is the only way to make the project economically viable because it spreads project costs across three families instead of two.

Two of the families are expected to meet Habitat’s eligibility requirement of no more than 60 percent of the local median income. According to Habitat Assistant Director Sharon Oehmig, the third family could earn up to 80 percent of the local median income.

Marty Szdlowski, of the Brunswick Housing Authority, a partner in the project, said Wednesday that the higher income threshold for the third family doesn’t add to the viability of the project.

Tara Hill, Habitat’s executive director, said reducing the project to two units would have increased the cost of the homes from between $95,000 and $125,000 to $125,000 and $150,000.

“That $65 a month may not seem like a lot to many people, but it can make or break some of our clients,” Hill said.

The project required several exceptions for approval, including a reduced setback and increased allowable density. Both exceptions are allowable under the town’s affordable housing ordinance.

Despite Peters’ opposition, board Chairman Charlie Frizzle and member Steve Walker were satisfied with the project, saying similar developments have been successful elsewhere.

“We’ve done similarly sized units in other places and they’ve worked, in my mind,” Frizzle said. “The families that move in there are very happy to have a home of their own.”

Walker said that children would play in the street even if the board decided to double the project’s common area.

“(Children playing in the street) is a parenting issue rather than a design issue,” he said.

According to the application, work on the project is expected to begin within the next 90 days. Szdlowski said Wednesday that he’s already interviewing prospective home buyers.

In addition to a reduced price, families who purchase the homes are expected to provide sweat equity in their construction.

Planning Board Vice Chairwoman Margaret Wilson, who works for Habitat, recused herself from the vote. Members Dana Totman and Jason Bergquist were absent.

Steve Mistler can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 123 or [email protected]