Falmouth proceeds with land preservation, despite LMF bond delay

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FALMOUTH — The Town Council on Monday night appropriated more than $200,000 from various accounts to preserve four remote parcels of land.

The council also continued a discussion on the possibility of affordable senior housing in the old Plummer School.

Councilors voted 5-2 to purchase nearly 100 acres bordering the North Falmouth Community Forest for just over $214,000. Vice Chairman Russell Anderson and Councilor Charlie McBrady were the minority.

Town Manager Nathan Poore said the town had received grants from the U.S. Forest Service’s Community Forest and Open Space Conservation program and the Land for Maine’s Future program to help pay for the acquisitions.

But the LMF funds have not been released by the state, and it is not clear if or when they will be released. Poore said once the funds are released, the town will be reimbursed.

He added that if the town does not use the $231,800 grant award from the U.S. Forest Service by the end of the fiscal year, it will lose the funding. Poore said the town must “bridge the gap” without the LMF funding. He also said the property owners want to close immediately.

The funds will come from three separate accounts, two of which the council voted to drain: $177,500 from the Open Space Reserve Account, and more than $19,000 came from the seldom-used Parks Acquisition Reserve Account, which was mostly drained because of the recent purchase of Hurricane Valley Farm parcel.

More than $17,000 would also come from the town’s unassigned fund balance.

Initially the order called for $25,000 from the unassigned fund balance in order to leave some money in the open space reserve account, but the council instead opted to use as little from this fund as possible.

Anderson said while Gov. Paul LePage’s decision to delay the LMF funding is “close to being an abuse of power,” he isn’t in favor of the land purchase.

“I don’t feel right kicking in $200,000 of taxpayer money,” he said.

McBrady said he was concerned the LMF funding won’t happen.

Council Charmain David Goldberg said while $214,000 is a lot of money that must be handled “with all due caution,” this is “a project staring us in the face.”

Senior housing

While no action was taken with regard to the senior housing discussions, councilors weighed the possibility of establishing a new Affordable Housing Tax Increment Financing District for potential use toward the project.

The OceanView retirement community had proposed making a 36-unit senior apartment building in the school off Lunt Road. The scope of the project has since changed, with three options of various sizes presented for consideration.

The first would be to renovate the existing school building to create 18 housing units. The second option would be to renovate the building and create a new addition for 28 units. The final option would require the town to sell or transfer 0.2 acres for an addition over the property line to create 34 units.

Theo Holtwijk, the town’s director of long range planning and development, said OceanView is proposing to keep a third of its units affordable for residents earning no more than 120 percent of area median income for 30 years. According to Holtwijk, the 2015 income levels in Falmouth for two people at 120 percent AMI is just over $74,000.

If a new Affordable Housing TIF is established, it would work the same way as a conventional TIF, with tax revenue set aside for a particular use. If the town established the TIF, Holtwijk said this would help expand the affordability of the project.

“It’s a whole new arena for the town to consider,” Holtwijk said.

He also said an Affordable Housing TIF is generally more flexible than a conventional TIF, meaning it can be used for projects such as capital and operating costs of the housing, as well as a recreational facility.

The Town Council established an OceanView and natural gas TIF district this spring, but it did not include the Plummer building. Hotlwijk said that was intentional because at the time it was not clear what would happen to the building.

When it came to transferring land to OceanView, some councilors were reticent.

Councilor Ned Kitchel said the public would likely push back against it, and said he was not for it. Councilor Caleb Hemphill said he is not comfortable with development on the property.

“I think there is a large number of constituents concerned with the use of that property,” Hemphill said.

Goldberg and Anderson said they shouldn’t rule out the third option without seeing more advanced plans.

“I don’t want to say I’m opposed without knowing what it will look like,” Anderson said.

Goldberg said there is interest in having OceanView and town staff continue the conversation, and that the issue is what the project would look like.

“The biggest issue is generally the size, scope and scale,” he said.

Colin Ellis can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @colinoellis.

Sidebar Elements

The OceanView retirement community is proposing to establish affordable senior housing rentals in the old Plummer school off Lunt Road in Falmouth.

Reporter covering the Portland Public School District as well as the town of Falmouth for The Forecaster. Can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net.