North Yarmouth development proposal gets little love at hearing

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NORTH YARMOUTH — A proposal by the Board of Selectmen to redevelop North Yarmouth Memorial School as a municipal and community campus drew criticism and questions at the third in a series of public meetings.

The March 18 meeting, held at the now-closed school, allowed opponents to air their views first. When it was time for proponents to speak, no one went to the podium.

Still, some residents said they were neither for nor against the proposal, and asked town officials for answers in order to better form an opinion.

The board’s recommendation – which selectmen approved 4-1 Feb. 3, with Paul Napolitano opposed – calls for the town to sell the existing Town Hall for housing or commercial development, and for creation of a municipal sewer system to help facilitate new development in accordance with the town’s 2003 Comprehensive Plan.

That system would run from the school’s existing system into the center of town, requiring nearly 3,000 feet of piping, Milan Nevajda of Planning Decisions, has said.

School Administrative District 51 closed the school last year and transferred it to the town.

A facilities study by Stephen Blatt Architects has priced that option at $2.67 million, a cost that would include $1.4 million to renovate the former school as a Town Hall, $650,000 to renovate the gym as a community center, and $70,000 to demolish the rest of the building. About 14,800 square feet at the rear of the existing building would be unused;12,500 of that could be rented, if not demolished.

The new Town Hall and community center would total 24,000 square feet.

The expense of the projects would be offset by the sale of the existing Town Hall land and tax values of new properties built there, Selectman Mark Girard has said.

Other options presented by Planning Decisions were to demolish the school entirely and build new, or to sell the school property and create an expanded municipal campus at the existing Town Hall.

Redeveloping the existing school has several benefits, such as continued use of its gym, food service area, playground, and field, Girard has said.

Expanding North Yarmouth’s tax base through stimulation of development and reducing town-owned land is one reason behind the selectmen’s recommendation, Chairman Steve Palmer has said. Other goals include creating housing and an attractive, visible, and vibrant town center, along with a building density that could spur commercial development.

But people at last week’s hearing saw major flaws in that plan.

Mark Verrill of Walnut Hill Road, who said he has spent 47 years in the village center district, criticized the idea of increased housing density. He noted that the area has many older buildings, and that “when you start shoehorning houses in around them, and what can be done with people that only think about money and greed, this town will never be the same.”

Verrill said he applauded the selectmen’s “bold proposal, for trying to think outside the box, but it won’t work.”

“Ripping up the town, and trying to promote growth just for the sake of growth, isn’t going to work,” he said. “If it was going to bring commercial development in here, we’d already have it here.”

Gary Whiting of Mill Road said he opposes the decision going to Town Meeting, “where there’s just a small fraction of the voting population in this town.”

A June referendum would draw a greater number of voters, he said.

Mark Napolitano of Mill Ridge Road called the sewer proposal “a waste of taxpayers’ money,” since “the majority of the taxpayers are not going to benefit from (it).”

“I think the majority of the people in this town don’t want … 300-plus houses in a small area,” he added.

The school should be sold and put on the tax rolls, Napolitano said.

In an email Tuesday, Girard said the “300 units is first and foremost a ‘what if’ number used to do financial modeling; it is not the recommendation of the selectmen, nor is it required to happen in order to make the project financially successful. The 300 is the total units that the sewer system was assumed to be able to handle before moving to the next stage, which would be some type of mechanical sewerage treatment.”

“I believe this town is totally top-down driven,” said Linc Merrill of North Road, noting that the school building “is a problem looking for a solution, and you’ve advanced a solution that you think would be in the best interests of the town.”

He expressed opposition to a plan to build many houses in the town center, and a municipal sewer system that he was not sure the town could run.

“This will be a tax increase; there’s no doubt about it,” he added.

Amy Horstmann of Henry Road was among those neither for nor against the proposal. She pointed to the need not only for elderly housing in town, but also for single people with families.

“I see families, if they get divorced or if they’re single, they’re looking in Yarmouth, and they’re looking in Cumberland, and they’re looking in Falmouth,” she said. “There’s nothing here for them. I see that as a major opportunity for developers, if you’re looking to develop something. There’s not just (the need for) elderly housing. … We also need some place that’s affordable for single parents and younger families.”

Katie Murphy of Mountfort Road said she continues to have questions about the proposal and has therefore not formed an opinion.

“I don’t want to vote on anything unless I know the truth of the matter,” she said, suggesting an expanded information sheet be available for future discussions.

Palmer said that while there have been expressions of interest from entities about redeveloping the school property, there have been no formal proposals, nor has the Board of Selectmen sought any.

Verrill asked what the town would do if the selectmen’s recommendation fails.

Napolitano said selectmen had to put one plan forward, and if that fails, the panel would present another idea.

“We do not have a Plan B yet,” he said.

Napolitano said he believes the matter should not to go Town Meeting, noting the input he was hearing from citizens is that it is not ready. He said he pushed for a formal request for proposals.

“The key factor in terms of making a decision on how we move forward really revolved around first resolving whether we wanted to have a community (sewer) system,” Girard said. “If this site is going to be offered up for an RFP under current zoning, it is a very, very different property than what it’s offered up as if there’s a sewer system.”

“Without the town having decided what it wants, how would a fair assessment of the benefits of any proposal be evaluated,” the selectman noted in the Tuesday email. “Also, if we did not get RFP input regarding the current Town Hall site how could we make an informed judgment.

“(T)his needs to be an open process where all potentially interested parties are aware,” he added. “The status of sewer, do we want to keep the ball fields and or gym, and other considerations should be established before we start that process.”

Whether the town redevelops the school or sells it, something has to be decided this year, Selectman Alex Carr said.

“We cannot go through another winter with this building derelict in its condition,” he said.

The town budgeted about $56,000 in the current fiscal year for building use, but greater activity has pushed that to a proposed $111,000 in fiscal 2016, which begins July 1, Town Manager Rosemary Roy said last week.

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.