SCARBOROUGH — The Town Council gave procedural approval Wednesday night to preliminary plans for the Maine Army National Guard to build a $17.5 million armory along the Saco border off U.S. Route 1.
Councilors moved a contract zoning application to construct the new readiness center and vehicle maintenance shop past the first step in what they said would be a nine-step approval process.
The new center would replace an aging armory at 772 Stevens Ave. in Portland.
The University of New England, whose Portland campus is adjacent to the Stevens Avenue armory, has struck a deal with the National Guard to acquire the armory at 772 Stevens Ave.
Under the proposed swap, UNE would purchase the land in Scarborough and turn it over to the Guard. In return, UNE will get the Stevens Avenue Armory and expand its Westbrook College campus by 2018.
Dwaine Drummond, director of facilities for the National Guard, said the 60-year-old Portland readiness center and vehicle maintenance shop “is really, for our purposes, not fiscally feasible to spend money on,” and construction funds for a new armory would be available by 2018.
Drummond also said the agreement with UNE is non-binding, and if UNE does not find suitable land for the new armory within the next year, the partnership could dissolve.
The new readiness center would be on 24.6 undeveloped acres in Scarborough and 12 acres in Saco, according to UNE’s contract zoning application to Scarborough. The entrance to the property would be in Saco.
Preliminary plans for the new facility include a 50,000-square-foot readiness center and 29,000-square-foot maintenance shop, with administrative space, training facilities, and storage space for vehicles and equipment.
Because the clock is ticking on the agreement with UNE, Drummond said the two entities hoped to begin the zoning process as quickly as possible to see if the Scarborough project is feasible.
Town officials agreed the project would pose unique challenges because of its location straddling two municipalities.
Despite the National Guard’s suggestion of conserving a portion of the property near a stream and assurance of thick buffers, officials and residents expressed concern that wildlife would be disrupted.
“I sort of look forward to that ribbon of green that’s there as you’re entering Scarborough, and I think it’s important that we as a town protect that,” Planning Bord member Cory Fellows said.
The property’s only abutter, John Fairweather, of U.S. Route 1, told the council he worries about his property’s value. Drummond said the National Guard had not yet reached out to him.
“It is nice looking at night seeing 10 to 15 deer running through my yard,” Fairweather said. “What’s my property value going to do with a building surrounded by barbed wire?”
Councilors wondered if the Guard could compensate Fairweather, pay an impact fee to the town, or perhaps lobby for funds for a new Maine Turnpike exit. Speaking only for the Guard, Drummond said such funding is unlikely.
Will Dionne, planning and programing manager for the Guard, said funding for construction of the new armory would come from the U.S. Army.
He and representatives from UNE said they understand the concerns, and hope they can sufficiently alleviate them as the proposal moves forward.
“We want this to be something the community is proud of; we understand we can’t always please everybody,” Dionne said. “We really are enthusiastic about doing something in this part of the state. … In the Portland area, it’s just hard to find the space.”
UNE’s application to Scarborough indicates the Guard center will employ 24 people full time, and train about 100 National Guard members one weekend per month.
A possible benefit for Scarborough, Dionne said, is that the new armory could be a displacement center for residents in the case of an emergency.
Once the land is acquired, the National Guard will begin a traffic study and environmental assessments, followed six to eight months later by a planning charrette.
If construction begins by 2018, the new center could be complete by 2020.
The contract zone process is expected to take several months, with the next step being a neighborhood meeting, followed by a meeting with the Planning Board.
The University of New England plans to purchase land at the Scarborough-Saco border for the Maine Army National Guard to build a new armory. In return, UNE would acquire an existing armory at 772 Stevens Ave. in Portland and expand the Westbrook College campus.