Well, friends and neighbors, residential growth continues at a blinding pace in old Scarborough Town. But whether that pace is too fast, too slow or just right remains an open question. Heck, the Town can’t even seem to agree on what that current pace is, let alone what it should be.
This blog will examine where we think we are, how we got here and what we can do about it. We’ll try to eliminate the jargon and the red herrings.
Where we are
Based on our review of various Town documents, we estimate that around 1,200 total housing units have been approved since 2017, bringing us to a total of about 9,500 total units now. (We wish we could be more accurate here, but if there’s a readily available source of reliable, consistent and comprehensive data on our housing inventory and growth prepared by the Town, we haven’t been able to find it.) This estimate appears to be consistent with the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS) estimate for 2019 of 9,233 housing units.
Here’s a summary of the Town’s “Total Units” approved over the period from 2011 to 2109:
(We wanted to include the 2020 numbers, or at least estimates of them, in this analysis. So we requested them from the Town last week. The response was they “will be working on this information.” How this very basic information about housing permits is not available more than three months after the year-end makes us wonder just what sort of system the Town has for reporting permitting activity.)
In any event, the recent explosion of housing is readily seen in the chart above, with the average number of units approved each year from 2017 to 2019 being three times that of the prior six years.
But never mind the abstractions; here’s some reality you can see as you drive around town… multi-unit housing projects approved since 2017:
Note: The above list does not include stand-alone single-family homes created outside of multiple-unit projects.
It’s also interesting to see a major shift in the mix of housing units has changed in the last few years. As will be discussed below, a change in the Town ordinances in 2008 made possible a huge shift in the mix of housing types. While single-family homes have long been the predominant housing type in Scarborough, a dramatic shift occurred between 2017 and 2019 as noted in the following chart:
While only 48 units were created in multi-apartment buildings during the six-year period from 2011 to 2016, a total of 613 units were created in multi-apartment building in the three-year period from 2017 to 2019.
What are the implications – positive or negative – of this dramatic change in the Town’s housing character?
How we got here
How we arrived at this level of scorching growth is a complicated story. Here is one observer’s condensed and highly subjective explanation of the factors that have caused the explosive growth:
* Town Manager Tom Hall has a bias toward fast growth. As the only consistent player in a Town governance structure that sees about one-third of the Town Council potentially turn over every year, the Manager is at the helm for the long term. He controls the decision-making data and uses it (effectively) to steer the Town Council along his desired course.
* The Town changed its “Growth Management Ordinance” – which is supposed to help avoid too-fast and disruptive housing growth – in 2008. The major change was to introduce the concept of “fractionalization” to the process of issuing housing permits. It essentially gave developers the leeway to build up to two one-bedroom apartment units in lieu of one single-family home. (As seen in the chart above, it “worked.”)
* Scarborough has been blessed, or cursed, depending on your viewpoint, with very savvy developers. Not only are they shrewd, but they have that intangible advantage of being “local boys,” or, as some refer to them, “Marco Island boys.” One of the shrewdest early moves of the brothers Michaud and Risbara was to hire away the Town’s Director of Planning, Dan Bacon, the person most familiar with the Town’s complex zoning requirements. It’s not good when the fox knows more about the henhouse layout and alarm system than the hens.
* Taxpayers have kicked in significant financial assistance to the developers by way of the tax break known as a “Credit Enhancement Agreement” (“CEA”). So the unwitting taxpayer is actually having his tax dollars used to fuel or “incentivize” this fast growth. In 2021, for instance, we sent the Downs $243,000 to help their bottom line. In view of the current level of construction activity at the Downs, their 2022 payoff will likely be much larger. It’s ironic that taxpayers have actually subsidized the torrid growth pace.
The politics of growth
A frequently used tactic in the debate on many issues at all levels of government is for one side to overstate or mischaracterize the other’s position. For instance, in the current Town debate over housing growth, some pro-growth individuals will characterize the “reasonable-growth” advocates as “anti-growth.” That’s just not a fair assessment of the position of many reasonable-growth advocates. It’s disingenuous at best.
Most Scarborough residents are not anti-growth. They just want reasonable growth that doesn’t urbanize the Town overnight. Do we want to become the commuter hub of Cumberland County where good access to the Turnpike and I-295 is the primary reason people decide to live here? Does that foster a sense of community? How much more pressure do we want to put on Route 1? What are the financial implications of excessive growth? (We just don’t buy the idea that the Town will grow its way to financial prosperity and affordable tax increases.)
Also worth mentioning is the motivation of some of the rapid-growth proponents. It seems that some of the most vocal members of that choir are in the local real estate, construction or development businesses. Hmmm. And don’t forget that Jean-Marie Caterina, the chair of the Town’s Ordinance Committee, which is responsible for the Growth Management Ordinance, is a Scarborough realtor. Yes, her livelihood involves the buying and selling of homes in Scarborough. Ahh, the appearances we create!
Lighting a candle
Longtime readers know that we at LookOutScarborough frequently curse the darkness of Town matters. But we also try to light a candle in that darkness whenever possible. In that spirit, here’s our list of suggestions for moving forward to finally address these issues in an informed, rational manner:
* Provide data on growth over the last ten years. Give the public meaningful data on how the housing inventory has changed – by type and size of structure (single family, apartment/condo, # of bedrooms) and by unit ownership (owner or renter occupied).
* Provide data on specialty housing types over the past ten years – number of units of senior housing, affordable housing, subsidized housing.
* Seriously solicit public input on growth preferences. Yes, a real, unbiased, widely-distributed survey. (A recent survey conducted by two Town Councilors indicated a high degree of disapproval of the current fast growth rate among residents.)
* Set specific, community-endorsed goals for future specialty housing. Saying – as we currently do – “we need more” senior or affordable/subsidized housing is not a meaningful goal! The goals need to be developed with an understanding of the region’s demands and resources. More importantly, the goals need to reflect Scarborough residents’ desires and willingness to pay for these desirable programs.
You, too, can light a candle
At the moment, the Town Council is in the process of rushing through very recently proposed changes to the Town’s Growth Management Ordinance (“GMO”). (What? Another rush job on a critical Town decision! Say it’s not so!) Fortunately, Town Councilor Betsy Gleysteen has prepared a concise and readable review of the proposed revisions GMO and its significant deficiencies.
If you are concerned about the rapid growth in Scarborough, please see Betsy’s review of the facts and how you can help. Here’s a link to her review. We highly recommend it.
Two key dates are:
Wednesday, April 21 – Town Council public hearing on the GMO
Wednesday, May 5 – Town Council second reading (i.e., final vote) on the proposed GMO changes
Early Budget Warning
The first draft of the Fiscal 2022 budget has been announced. Unfortunately, it’s much like most recent budgets. The Town Manager and School Superintendent prepared outlandish budget requests, dumped them in the Town Council’s lap and told the Council to figure it out. This model never ceases to amaze us. In the real world, a CEO (i.e., Town Manager) who presented a budget that was so unresponsive to the Board of Directors’ request (i.e., the Town Council’s) would be picking up his final check shortly after submitting the budget.
Here, however, the Town Council and the public get to go at it for 5-6 weeks of heated arguments while the Town Manager plays the part of humble servant to the Council, sitting by quietly and observing the mayhem.
But enough philosophizing. Here are a few of the lowlights of the proposed budget:
- Tax rate increase: 7.74%
- Municipal expenses increase: 7.6%
- School expense increase: 6.5%
- Combined school and municipal capital expenditures: up by $6.8 million ($4.2 million to $11.0 million)
- Additional debt to be issued: $8.6 million
The beat goes on. We’ll keep you posted as we dig into the gory details.
That’s all for now, folks. Challenges abound in Scarborough, as they often do. Be strong! Until next time,
(nom de blog of Steve Hanly, who is solely responsible for the contents above)
Click here for a 60-second tour of recent Scarborough housing activity.