Cumberland Town Council airs mixed views on housing projects

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CUMBERLAND — The Town Council is expected next month to decide whether to send contract zone agreements for two affordable housing projects to the Planning Board.

Councilors’ views on the proposed West Cumberland developments were mixed at their meeting Monday night. They also heard concerns from the public.

Telos Capital of Portland and Walnut Hill Investments of North Yarmouth are interested in building 17 single-family homes in separate projects on Route 100. The properties are located between Mill and Wilson roads and in the Village Office Commercial 1 Zone.

Although the Planning Board approved a business park about five years ago on the property eyed by Telos – a 10.4-acre parcel owned by Elvin Copp – the project failed to materialize.

Town Manager Bill Shane said that despite the town’s attempts to attract different businesses to that corridor, and while there has been more success with smaller businesses elsewhere on Route 100, the office commercial types the town has been seeking have not appeared.

“We really added a lot more uses to the (VOC 1) zone, but have been very unsuccessful in attracting businesses to the Route 100 corridor,” Shane said. “Even though the zoning has been more flexible, we just can’t get out of the starting gate when we speak with developers.”

As a result, the town discussed a different approach, aimed at addressing Cumberland’s need for affordable housing, with Copp and Doris Wilson, who owns the other nearly 17-acre property. Both properties are under contract to be sold.

The homes would cost between $175,000 and $225,000, in a town where the median price of a home is $350,000. The lot sizes would be 20,000 square feet, less than half an acre, with 75 feet of frontage.

Shane said 20,000 square feet is the minimum lot size allowed under the state plumbing code, and that the lots would be served by public water, but not by a public sewer system.

The developers require a contract zone for two reasons: VOC 1 does not allow single-family homes, although it does permit multiplexes, and the minimum lot size is 40,000 square feet, double what the developers seek.

West Cumberland resident Nick Knight told councilors he supports a residential development, but opposes the proposed density.

“The proposal that you’re now talking about is half-acre zoning, next to lots that have four-acre zoning, and that is what I have a problem with,” he said. “… That’s not fair to those four-acre-zoned houses, right next to (the development).”

Knight instead suggested two-acre zoning.

Scott Lalumiere, a consultant for Telos, said it can be difficult to finance multiplexes or condominiums.

“They’re just not a method of ownership that we would want to pursue at this point,” he said.

After an executive session May 14, the Town Council unanimously authorized Shane to develop contract zone agreements with the two companies. A neighborhood meeting June 6 drew various questions, such as whether it was too soon to give up on the commercial aspect of the Route 100 corridor, and whether the use would be too dense for both parcels.

“We want to … invigorate the community with some more families,” Shane said, adding later that “trying to add diversity … into the population of our community, I think is important.”

A recent study determined that while there were 1.14 children per household in town between 1993 and 1996, that number dropped to 0.4 between 2001 and 2008, he said.

Councilor Bill Stiles pointed out that the businesses on Route 100 could use more people to patronize them, and that “one of the things that I see that we really need in this town is low-cost housing for our children.”

Councilor Mike Perfetti said he supports the idea of affordable housing, but wants “the best policy tool to make it happen.”

Councilor Steve Moriarty, who was elected chairman at Monday’s meeting, said he is conflicted on the issue. He espoused the need for diverse and affordable housing, but noted that the town went through a process five years ago that excluded single-family housing from the zone in question.

Moriarty expressed concern about the magnitude of change proposed for a relatively small area.

“Placing this in the context of a number of surrounding owners, I think, raises this to the level of a genuine land-use planning issue,” he said, adding later that “I tend to feel that approaching it from a zone change perspective, given the size, scale and impact of this project, is preferable to the use of the contract zone technique. … I have not made up my mind, finally.”

Councilor Tom Gruber noted that Cumberland’s aging population is looking to downsize, and that affordable housing can facilitate that move.

If the Town Council on July 9 sends the matter to the Planning Board, that panel could hold a public hearing on it in August and return a recommendation to the council in September.

If the council approves a contract zone, the issue could return to the Planning Board for subdivision review in September or October, Shane said.

Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @learics.

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A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.