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Topsham selectmen eye TIF amendments for Town Meeting warrant

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Topsham selectmen eye TIF amendments for Town Meeting warrant

TOPSHAM — The Board of Selectmen next week will decide which warrant items to send to Town Meeting.

Among the items are amendments to the Highlands’ three tax increment financing districts and proposed code of conduct and code changes related to Town Meeting. The board held a public hearing on those amendments April 1.

The Highlands proposes to amend its TIF agreements with the town so that all new value at its retirement communities – renovated existing buildings and new infrastructure – would fall under a different revenue-sharing structure than existing value.

All existing value would maintain the same terms, while the Highlands would earn 75 percent of tax increment revenue on new value, leaving the town with 25 percent.

Matthew Teare, development manager for the Highlands, said the new structure would help the company meet its borrowing needs. He also said the Highlands has seen a slump in growth – from 35 sales a year in Highland Green’s first five years, to six or seven sales annually in the past four years.

“When you’re carrying a business, six or seven sales is basically no growth,” Teare said. “And if we’re not growing, we’re not adding value, and the town’s not getting any benefit. It’s not in anybody’s interest for us not to grow. So what we’re saying to the town and its residents is ‘help us get growing again.’”

The poor economy is one factor behind the slump, as are expenses, Teare explained: as they have increased, so have the Highlands’ prices.

“We raised prices to try to cover our costs, and that hurt sales,” he said.

But expansion, he said, would allow the company to lower its prices and be more competitive.

Teare said the Highlands has invested about $20 million in public and private infrastructure since the original TIF agreement in 1996. Projects include Village Drive, Community Way, the Route 196 intersection, Highland Green’s public golf course and a sewer extension to Tedford Road.

In comparison to this expense, he said, the Highlands’ total TIF income from developing its communities in the past 15 years has been about $5 million. He estimated another $20 million in infrastructure will be necessary to build out Highland Green, which includes more than $2 million on full construction of Audubon Way and Mountain Road, two public road connections at the front of Highland Green.

Some residents expressed opposition to the amendment during the April 1 public hearing.

“I think now is the time to say no (to tax breaks),” said Bill Fitzsimmons of Front Street, noting that Topsham, too, is suffering from tough economic times.

He suggested that the Board of Selectmen create a committee of impartial community members to work with the Highlands and conduct an in-depth analysis of the numbers behind the company’s proposal.

“This TIF has huge financial ramifications,” Fitzsimmons said.  “... We should spend more time analyzing the ramifications of this TIF and making sure that everybody understands them before we act on it.”

Kathy Sawyer of Woodcock Drive called a TIF amendment premature, pointing out that several lots remain for sale at Highland Green.

John Rensenbrink of Cathance Road said Highlands owner John Wasileski has been alert for opportunities not only for himself but for the benefit of the community. He added that Wasileski needs the opportunity provided through the TIF amendments.

“What is this town going to do to a person who has done what he’s done for us?,” Rensenbrink asked. “I think we ought to back him up.”

The public hearing on a proposed code of conduct and code changes related to Town Meeting drew no public comment other than from members of the Topsham Government Improvement Committee, which drafted the language.

Selectmen will set the Town Meeting warrant on Thursday, April 15. Town Meeting is Wednesday, May 19.

Alex Lear can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net.