Dueling North Yarmouth development proposals getting plenty of discussion

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NORTH YARMOUTH — There has been no shortage of opportunities for voters to discuss the big decisions they face about the town’s future.

Whether the town should create a public sewer system, and the fate of North Yarmouth Memorial School, are among the issues in two referendum questions discussed most recently at public forums Oct. 21 and Oct. 27, with several more sessions still to come before next week’s vote.

Question 1 stems from a recommendation by the Board of Selectmen – and supported by the town’s Economic Development and Sustainability Committee – that the school, closed in June 2014, be redeveloped as a municipal and community campus.

The existing Town Hall would be sold for housing or commercial development, and a municipal sewer system would be created to help facilitate new development at that site.

Question 2 is the result of a successful citizen petition opposing the selectmen’s plan. It calls first for the town to cease all spending and work concerning the study or development of a sewer system.

It also pushes for Wescustogo Hall, the community gathering place destroyed by fire in August 2013, to be rebuilt as stipulated in a 1997 agreement with the town; for the current Town Hall to be maintained and renovated; for proposals to be sought for the school building; citizen feedback on all of the proposals, and a plan for the school to be sent to a town vote.

If both questions pass, or both questions fail, nothing happens, according to town officials.

A forum on Question 1, held Oct. 21 at the school, was facilitated by the Economic Development Committee.

“Somebody said, ‘I think one of the things we can all agree on is that none of us want some crappy development in the center of town,'” EDSC member Matt Ahlberg told the audience, noting that the town’s Comprehensive Plan calls for “a thriving village center with facilities, interconnected with adjacent village neighborhoods.”

“I think we all can agree that that is a beneficial thing for our community,” Ahlberg added.

In the past decade, 81 percent of town development has occurred in farm and forest areas, he explained.

“This is sprawl … this is a very crappy way for a town to develop,” Ahlberg continued, adding that the Question 1 proposal presents “a unique opportunity” for the school building, noting it offers indoor space to house all the community’s activities and services, and also allows for extra room for expansion in coming years.

The Wescustogo Hall Committee voted 4-0 in June, Ahlberg said, to recommend to the Board of Selectmen that the building’s reconstruction begin by the end of 2017, and that all insurance proceeds will go toward construction or remodeling of a structure to meet stipulations in the town’s 1997 acceptance agreement to accept the building from the local Grange.

The committee also called for the facility to be “architecturally evocative” of the original structure, Ahlberg said, noting he thought that could be done at the school, “because we’re not spending all of our budget on all the things that already exist at this particular location.”

The committee additionally wants the facility to have a distinctive presence, should it be made part of a bigger facility, and the building should be on the same campus as Town Hall, Ahlberg added.

ESDC member Amy Horstmann echoed Ahlberg’s sentiments about Wescustogo. She noted that money from the insurance settlement is in an escrow account, and not to be used until voters have approved construction of a new building.

A new, standalone Wescustogo Hall is estimated to cost $1.1 million, she said, noting that “a similar-sized space in or attached to North Yarmouth Memorial could be built at a much lower cost,” comparing the project to Merrill Auditorium being attached to Portland City Hall.

The Question 1 proposal is estimated to cost $3.18 million, including a $510,000 septic connection for the Town Hall property and the $2.67 million renovation of the school building, according to EDSC. Upfront revenue of $1.15 million would include $510,000 from the sale of Town Hall, $88,000 in sewer hookup fees and $556,000 in Wescustogo insurance proceeds – should the facility be incorporated into the school site development.

The net amount leaves a bond of about $2 million, of which nearly $120,000 would be paid annually for 20 years. Once the original Town Hall property is redeveloped, and placed into a Tax Increment Financing district, the estimated tax revenue each year would be about $153,000, according to EDSC.

Were Wescustogo not part of the school site development, insurance proceeds from the fire would not be part of projected revenues. The bond could consequently be $2.58 million, with an annual payment of nearly $153,000, the committee stated.

TIF allows new property value within that district to be sheltered from school and county taxes; it is excluded from the determination of a town’s contribution to county and school assessments, the group noted.

Linc Merrill, one of the residents spearheading Question 2, responded to concerns about development occurring in outlying areas.

“If you talk to people in the more rural areas of the town, there’s a reason that they live there,” he said, noting that they made a choice to live on larger properties.

Merrill also noted that not much land in the Village Center has been for sale, and that commercial property there has remained unsold in recent years due to lack of demand.

Milan Nevajda, a consultant with Planning Decisions – which last year suggested three development scenarios to the town, one of which comprises Question 1 – noted that when his Portland firm did market research with commercial/residential developers, “We found that there was significant demand for development in the area of North Yarmouth.”

“When we looked at what restrictions were in place regarding development, we found that what’s in North Yarmouth right now in regard to zoning and infrastructure is a hindrance,” Nevajda explained. “… If there’s the demand … and the zoning and infrastructure don’t allow it, that’s partly why you see very little development in the Center area.”

He also noted the recent economic recession had a negative impact on vacancy rates for commercial properties in the Village Center.

Merrill, a longtime member and president of the Grange, also questioned claims that Wescustogo should not be rebuilt on its own, due to insurance proceeds coming in well below the $1.1 million construction estimate.

Noting that he has been in the insurance business since 1979, Merrill asked, “If it costs $1.1 million to replace that building, and we only have $556,000 on it, what happened? … There should be no reason that a building should only get half of what it costs to replace.”

EDSC committee member Katie Murphy asked Merrill if, since he served on the Wescustogo Hall committee, he had looked into the insurance policy. Merrill said he had not reviewed the policy.

Selectman Mark Girard, a liaison to EDSC, said a replacement cost policy had been in place, but noted that the architect’s estimate reflected rebuilding Wescustogo at a different location to better meet community needs. Girard had doubts that the replacement value would cover items like parking, site work, utilities and the foundation.

Question 2 forum

Offering an introduction to the Question 2 forum, held Tuesday, Merrill noted how Wescustogo’s destruction derailed a town-approved plan to, in part, move the 19th century Old Town House to the current Town Hall site, and have a trail and bridge lead from Wescustogo to Town Hall, tying both sides of the town property together with pedestrian access.

The closure of NYMS also threw another wild card into the mix, Merrill said. He recalled how early this year, the Board of Selectmen pursued a different direction, with its proposal to move the Town Hall to NYMS and create a municipal sewer system.

With considerable public opposition to that recommendation, the group that spearheaded what is now Question 2 would “try to get a more appropriate plan approved by the town,” Merrill said.

Scott Kerr, another Question 2 advocate, noted that the proposal “does not presuppose an outcome; it looks to develop ideas with dollar amounts to attached” in order to help residents in forming opinions on a development direction.

Kerr said he wanted taxpayers to know how much it would cost them “to support a building that is five times the size of the current Town Hall, to provide multiple function rooms and a gym. These things are not free, and should be quantified.”

His group is neither for nor against keeping NYMS, he said, adding that asking developers for ideas through RFPs could help broaden the town’s options.

Should Question 2 succeed, among the steps Merrill expects to be taken would be for the Board of Selectmen to stop all activity related to building a municipal sewer district and selling the Town Hall property. It would also start the RFP process to determine development options for NYMS, while maintaining the school’s gym for public use.

Use of the building outside the municipality could be accomplished through a long-term lease, so the property could revert to the town one day, he noted.

An RFP could also go out on the current Town Hall and fire station, Merrill said, noting, “We really need to know what all of our options are before we make a decision on how to move forward.”

Merrill also said his group recommends the town’s 2003 Comprehensive Plan be updated, “to reflect current desires of the residents,” adding that it should be “the footprint and the blueprint upon which we move any development projects forward.”

The town should decide whether it supports having its taxpayers fund infrastructure to support significant growth, or whether developers should foot that bill, Merrill said.

Polls will be open Election Day, Nov. 3, at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, 247 Walnut Hill Road, from 7 a.m.-8 p.m.

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

Still need answers?

For North Yarmouth voters who still have questions about the town’s two referendum questions, members of the Board of Selectmen and Economic Development and Sustainability Committee will be available at the Town Hall meeting room on the following dates:

• Thursday, Oct. 29, 10-12 a.m. and 3-7 p.m.

• Friday, Oct. 30, 10-12 a.m. and 3-5 p.m.

• Sunday, Nov. 1, 2-4 p.m. 

• Monday, Nov. 2, 10-12 a.m. and 3-4 p.m.

No appointment is necessary.

North Yarmouth residents came to North Yarmouth Memorial School four times in recent weeks to discuss the two competing Village Center development questions on the Nov. 3 ballot. One key component of both questions is the fate of the school property.

Mark Verrill, left, and Linc Merrill are two North Yarmouth residents who spearheaded an effort to place a second Village Center development question on the town ballot.

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.