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Report: Cumberland needs more families, affordable housing

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Report: Cumberland needs more families, affordable housing

CUMBERLAND — A financial impact analysis produced for the town suggests Cumberland grow its families with school-age children and increase affordable housing, among other recommendations.

The Cumberland Town Council heard details of the document – produced by Planning Decisions and Policy One Research – during a special meeting Nov. 12. The project examines patterns of development and related fiscal trends in town throughout the past decade.

"Cumberland remains a predominantly residential community," said Charles Lawton, chief economist with Planning Decisions, in his presentation to the Town Council.

Still, growth has slowed, from 474 new dwelling units between 1981 and 1990, and 519 from 1991 to 2000, to 343 between 2001 and last year, Lawton said.

The nature of growth has also changed. Condominiums were 8 percent of all new dwelling units between 1981 and 1990, fell to 2 percent between 1991 and 2000, and rose to 34 percent this decade.

Lawton also pointed out that 38 percent of school enrollment this year comes from neighborhoods developed prior to 1980, while more recent developments see significantly lower percentages; 16 percent between 1997 and 2000 and 8 percent between 2001 and 2008.

School Administrative District 51, comprising Cumberland and North Yarmouth, saw a rise in enrollment in the late 1990s and early this decade to nearly 2,400 students. But enrollment dropped to less than 2,200 this fiscal year and is projected to decline to less than 1,800 in 10 years. To operate at the level of quality that exists today the district should have an enrollment of between 2,200 and 2,400, Lawton said.

"Cumberland was looking at increasing its capital capacity with the major growth in the ‘90s," he said, noting that the capital is there, but the demand has decreased as enrollment has dwindled.

Lawton said that if Cumberland had maintained its fiscal 2008 enrollment of about 1,600 into the next fiscal year, when it lost 40 students, it could have enjoyed a local savings of nearly $387,000, thanks to additional state aid. This savings would be contingent on enrollment coming entirely from existing homes, and upon the school system including the additional students inside its existing capacity.

"In effect, the same programs could have been maintained at a lower cost to the community, had there been additional students," Lawton said.

Community balance is the key to fiscal stability, he explained: enough new homes on connected roads, enough new children to enroll at the schools and enough new tax base on existing roads.

The report recommends Cumberland change its policies to encourage new child-friendly residential development, in-town housing turnover, and complementary commercial development, all within the town's existing infrastructure network.

Reaction to the report was mixed.

Bob Vail, a member of the SAD 51 Board of Directors and a longtime Cumberland resident, pointed out that declining enrollments are occurring all over Maine, and expressed hesitance about the town changing any land use policy and encouraging development.

"More housing is not the answer," he said. "We need to look at all our problems on a regional basis, and it can't be fixed here in Cumberland, and certainly not by bulldozing our farm fields."

Councilor George Turner echoed Vail's sentiments about population decline being bigger than a Cumberland issue, saying also that Maine's business incentives have been lacking in recent decades.

Councilor Mike Perfetti said he didn't think the report called for any bulldozing of valuable land, but he pointed out that while Cumberland has undertaken many conservation initiatives and will continue to do so, not all land is worth conserving.

"Measured growth is an absolute must," he said, "or we will wither on the vine."

Housing prices in Cumberland are out of control, Councilor Jeff Porter said, adding that more affordable housing, like the Crossing Brook development, are necessary in order to welcome young families. He also expressed the need for increased senior housing. Crossing Brook added as many as 130 children to school enrollment at one point, which is down to about 100 now, Porter said.

Town Manager Bill Shane said the town-owned Doane Property is being eyed for a mixture of uses, including affordable housing. He noted that the report is not a "Holy Grail," but rather a start to discussions about Cumberland maintaining its fiscal stability through community balance.

"I think, quite honestly, we're at a crossroad," Shane said, "and I think the conversation needs to begin today."

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