Scarborough council OKs large jump in growth permits

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SCARBOROUGH — The Town Council on Wednesday approved more than doubling the number of residential growth permits to accommodate an uptick in proposals for multi-family housing projects.

The vote was 5-1, with Councilor Bill Donovan absent and Councilor Katy Foley opposed. Councilor Peter Hayes said he voted in the affirmative so he could reserve the opportunity to request a reconsideration.

As a result of the council vote, the number of growth permits in the town’s reserve pool would increase by 285, for a total of 500.

In other business Wednesday, the council approved the appointment of Susan Russo as the acting assessor. Russo is the town’s assistant assessor; a new assessor is needed because Matt Sturgis has been appointed town manager in Cape Elizabeth.

A handful of residents at the meeting spoke about the increase in permits. Several were in favor, adding that the proposed multi-family units are in zones outlined for such development in the Comprehensive Plan.

However, a few others noted the town implemented its growth ordinance in the first place to control residential growth so municipal services – particularly the School Department – doesn’t get overwhelmed.

In addition, some residents also argued that since the town is in the process of updating its comprehensive plan, making changes to the number of growth permits should wait until the document is finished.

Council Chairman Shawn Babine, however, took the view that just because the permits are available that doesn’t mean developers will pull them all. And, he said, most of the multi-family projects being proposed would also be developed in phases.

“If the demand were to dry up, then the developers would not build more units,” he said after the meeting. “If they can’t fill the units, they won’t build more. I think the council was fairly comfortable with that.”

This same point was made by Town Planner Dan Bacon. In a memo provided to the Town Council prior to Wednesday’s vote, Bacon also noted that most of the new apartment units being proposed are one or two bedrooms, which means it’s unlikely a large number of children would be added to the school system.

But, for her part, Foley argued that it seemed like a rushed decision, without enough public input on what she called “a very complex issue,” and one that represents “a huge change because we’re more than doubling the number of permits.”

She also said it took “months and months,” using “fresh, hard data” for the members of the Growth Ordinance Committee to craft their recommendations and Foley felt like the Council “hasn’t been thoughtful enough” in making its decision to up the number of growth permits in the reserve pool.

“This feels very rushed. We’ve only had a month” to review the request and “I’m also concerned that the vote was a one-shot deal,” Foley said. “Everyone I’ve spoken to has said this is not a great idea.

“I’m also not convinced there would be no catastrophic impact” on either the schools or town services.

In his memo to the council, Bacon said the reserve pool of growth permits is set aside for “special projects that are specifically eligible under the ordinance” which include large, multi-family projects.

“The reserve pool was specifically designed to provide certainty to developers by having a reserved quantity of permits available for them to secure lending, plan the phasing of their projects and generally proceed with confidence,” the memo added.

Bacon’s memo said, “There is now demand for use of growth permits from the reserve pool, as there are a number of eligible multi-family housing projects that are incorporating affordable housing, are part of mixed use projects or are applying as contract zones, which warrant the addition of (growth) permits.”

Scarborough’s Long Range Planning Committee “has examined this matter in depth at their last three meetings,” Bacon said. At the most recent meeting Jan. 6, the committee unanimously recommended increasing the number of growth permits in the reserve pool.

Part of the committee’s reasoning, according to Bacon, is “all indications suggest this crunch for growth permits from the reserve pool is a blip in interest and demand for various forms of multi-family housing.”

The Long Range Planning Committee reasoned that “development timing, market forces, interest rates and socio-economic shifts are all influencing this blip, (which) isn’t likely to be sustained at this level, as when housing inventory rises, demand will lessen,” Bacon’s memo to the council said.

Furthermore, Bacon said, it’s “questionable whether all of these projects will actually proceed, and it is likely the pace of development and phasing will be spread out over multiple years and construction seasons.

“The larger, multi-building projects will be phased and will develop incrementally based on market demand. This will moderate demand on our growth ordinance (as well as the possible) municipal impacts.”

Large multi-family projects being contemplated include proposals on Haigis Parkway and at the Enterprise Business Park off U.S. Route 1. Those projects are still making their way through the town’s approval process.

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or Follow Kate on Twitter: @KirishCollins.