Councilor: Renters at risk in Brunswick housing boom

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BRUNSWICK — As Brunswick Landing businesses grow, housing at the former U.S. Navy base is set to expand, too.

But not everyone is happy about the housing plans, and a town councilor believes they will displace renters who can’t afford to buy homes.

Brunswick Landing Venture, a real estate and rental company that owns approximately 400 former Navy housing units on six properties in Brunswick and Topsham, hopes to soon begin construction on the first phase of a new condo project in Brunswick.

On June 5, the Planning Board approved plans submitted by Sitelines PA on behalf of Brunswick Landing Condominiums LLC to build 40 new condominiums on two lots owned by the company.

According to the plans, the project area was developed prior to 1970 as family housing for Navy personnel at the former air station. Some of the aging housing there was demolished in 2003.

Housing now in the area known as Mariner Landing and Woodland Village was constructed between 2002 and 2004.

The 40 new condos will include two-unit, three-unit, and four-unit buildings.

At the meeting, Curt Neufeld, Sitelines vice president, told board members the development’s stormwater and management plan is under review by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection. If the DEP permitting is approved this summer, construction would be initiated soon after, according to Chris Rhoades, one of the founders of Brunswick Landing Venture.

The company, Neufeld said, is “optimistic” it will receive the necessary permit within a month.

Re/Max Riverside in Topsham markets Brunswick Landing housing, and real estate agent Sue Spann on Monday said one-story condos will be priced at $290,000, while three-bedroom townhouses will cost $325,000.

There seems to be “quite a bit” of initial interest in the new condos, she added, but time will be a better indicator of demand.

“We’re not (going) to really know how much (interest there is) until at least a model is on the ground and people can see,” she said.

Rhoades echoed that sentiment Tuesday and said the development would be done in phases, based on demand.

The original plan proposed last summer was for his company to build 200 new units, divided evenly between Brunswick and Topsham.

“If we finish phase one of 40 units we’ll make another application for the next phase in Brunswick until we run out of land, which should be somewhere around 100 units,” Rhoades said. “And then we would look to Topsham in two or three years. If we’re successful in Brunswick we’d do the same thing in Topsham.”

Rhoades added his company is trying to “appeal to all of southern Maine” about the allure of Brunswick. He cited the town’s proximity to both Portland and Augusta, its downtown, art scene, hiking and biking trails, and being home to Bowdoin College as some key features.

He also said the driver behind the new construction – as well as another new initiative, converting rental properties into housing available for renters to buy – is a result of “pent-up demand to buy.”

“We’ve had a number of tenants over the last year that have expressed interest in wanting to buy,” he said. “Many of them have moved out to buy elsewhere.”

The new housing also coincides with the growth of Brunswick Landing.

According to the Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority website, the business campus is now home to 105 businesses and has created 1,600 jobs – more than double its original projection for job creation.

The prospect of more homes for sale doesn’t please District 5 Town Councilor Christopher Watkinson.

On June 5, Watkinson submitted a letter to the Planning Board asking it not to approve the new condos.

If they did decide to approve it, the letter asked board members do so “with a caveat that a percentage of existing and new construction will be permanently set aside for rental.”

Watkinson said Brunswick Landing Venture’s plan would “destabilize the rental and for-sale market,” and force families who can’t afford to buy out of the community.

He also said he had been contacted by renters of units owned by Brunswick Landing Venture who expressed “desperation” and “frustration” at what they perceived to be a “bait-and-switch” circumstance, where rentals were simply part of a strategy to eventually sell the units.

At the meeting, Chairman Charles Frizzle said the request raised in the letter was “beyond the scope” of what the Planning Department can do under the current zoning ordinance.

“We cannot demand that an applicant build a certain type of housing,” Frizzle said. “We have to approve whatever it is they bring to us in terms of type of housing based on what’s in the ordinance.”

He added the time for someone to approach board members with such an issue would have been when the ordinance was rewritten last year.

Rhoades acknowledged there are some residents who don’t want to purchase their units, and said the company is doing “everything (it) can” to accommodate them on other rental property.

Watkinson on Tuesday said though he has a “difference of opinion” on the conclusion of the issue than the Planning Board, he appreciates them considering his correspondence and the decision.

“As councilor for District 5, I feel it’s my duty to communicate the concerns of the residents of Brunswick Landing that will be displaced from the inability to purchase new construction,” he said. “Moving forward, I hope we can find a way to anticipate and prevent similar circumstances from occurring and devise a solution that doesn’t further shrink the already diminished rental market.”

Elizabeth Clemente can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or eclemente@theforecaster.net. Follow Elizabeth on Twitter @epclemente.

A plan to build 40 condos at Brunswick Landing has been approved and construction is expected to begin later this summer.

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