Welcome to the spring season, friends and neighbors! The season of growth and new beginnings. As you know, Scarborough has been growing like crazy for the past couple of years. And, now, rather than slowing down, things are definitely speeding up. Is there a limit, you may well ask?
Well, we think there is. Please read on and we’ll tell you why.
When pushed too far, Scarborough residents can be a feisty bunch. We hold the State record for voting down school budget referendums. In 2018 we recalled three School Board members for not listening to the concerns of the public. And we’ve witnessed the recent resident-driven revolts in Cape Elizabeth and Falmouth on housing and growth issues. How much more uncontrolled residential growth will we tolerate before our collective patience snaps?
The big picture – an update
The chart above shows the out-of-control housing growth the Town has experienced since 2017. Three times as many housing units were added in the five years between 2017 and 2021 as were added in the previous five years. And the number (and proportion) of apartment units has skyrocketed.
About three years ago, Town leaders became uneasy with the level of growth and decided that something had to be done. That something was the “Growth Management Ordinance” (“GMO”) revision passed in in May, 2021. The new GMO has proved to be spectacularly ineffective in slowing growth.
Why is that? The new GMO allows for the construction of 144 new housing units each year, a modest and manageable number. Beyond the 144 units per year, the GMO also prudently allows for the construction of affordable and senior housing units. But the fatal flaw of the revised GMO is that it has an exemption provision that is wide enough for a developer to drive a truck full of white vinyl siding through. The exemption process relies on the developer proving “public benefit” associated with his request to build additional units.
The trouble is, “public benefit” is a hugely subjective matter. Is “preserving a scenic vista” – which was in the developer’s best interest anyway – a public benefit? If so, does the developer get an exemption for 2 additional units? Or 6? Or 10? Does it depend on the vista? And it’s up to the Town Council to adjudicate the value of the “public benefit.” Good luck, Town Council!
Of course, when one developer gets an exemption for 50 units based on a completely unquantifiable determination of public benefit, other developers line up with equally unquantifiable public benefits and demand exemptions. And their lawyers eagerly line up next to them suing for equal treatment. So there are two possible outcomes here: (1) The Town Council agrees to most if not all exemption requests and growth continues unabated or (2) the Town spends huge legal bucks trying to defend a flawed ordinance. Pick your poison!
By the way, did the Town’s attorney review the revised GMO? If not, why not? If so, why did he or she not pick up on the impracticality of using public benefit as the exemption criterion? So many questions…
Where we are today — hang on to your hats!
That’s right… there are more than 1,200 apartment units that developers are just itching to build.
Of these, the Downs’ developers are the most itchy. Remember, they’ve asked for an exemption of more than 600 apartment units to “activate” the so-called downtown. That new “downtown” depends on the Town coming through and building a community center (a polite name for a pool) at taxpayer expense. So essentially we have to further accelerate growth that’s already too fast – as far as two-thirds of residents are concerned – in order for the Town to commit to spending $35 million or more on a project that supports the Downs’ need for a downtown. Where, oh where, is the logic in this?
But fear not, stout-hearted residents, Town Manager Hall and Council Chair Cloutier are hard at work, behind closed doors, naturally, hammering out an agreement with the Michaud and Risbara brothers at this very moment. Look for that exemption agreement to pop up very suddenly at a Town Council meeting soon. Expect it to be whisked through the approval process before anyone knows what’s happening. We expect action on the Downs deal prior to the June 14 election of a replacement Town Council member, since prospects for getting it approved are less likely once the new member is added. Stay tuned!
Right behind the Downs is the proposal to build 336 apartment units in the Enterprise Business Park. All they need are the permits and great riches will flow to the Town! You can see their pitch at this link which will take you to the agenda for the Town Council workshop on their proposal on May 4. (You will be forgiven if you think their proposal sounds very much like that from the Downs.)
And then there’s the Comfort Inn on Route 1 near the entrance to the Downs. We’re quite certain the Comfort Inn never had nightly turn-down service with a mint on your pillow, but it was probably an acceptable budget motel. Recently, though, not so much. Here’s one review from Expedia in February:
If you read more reviews, you’ll get the impression that housekeeping isn’t one of the hotel’s strengths. Not sure if the amenities include needle exchanges or not.
Our new Police Chief has recently described a significant uptick in crime in the area that appears associated with residents of the Comfort Inn. He also noted that PD community liaison staff are working with the residents to coordinate appropriate services.
The hotel was bought by a new owner (“Insta-Choice LLC”) in February of this year. Good luck finding out anything about Insta-Choice; the public records are totally unhelpful, perhaps purposely so. We’re looking forward to learning what business model the new owner has in mind for the property. It is rumored to be another conversion to apartments.
And speaking of the vibrancy that comes with a growing community, here’s an item from the Police Department’s new weekly crime report that caught our eye… and made us think fondly of those days long ago when the white-haired ladies dressed in all white (complete with white paper caps) used to weigh out a quarter’s worth of Bangor Taffy for you at Len Libby’s on Spurwink Road:
But enough nostalgia! Let’s focus on today. Better yet, let’s focus on tomorrow and how best to stop the insane growth that is rapidly and systematically turning our community into something we do not recognize and definitely do not want.
So, fellow feisty Scarborough residents, what are we going to do about this madness?
How Scarborough really works
Our next blog is not to be missed! We’ll pull back the curtain, name names and generally raise hell – all in the name of better acquainting our loyal readers with the way things really work in Town government. A draft of the blog is now being reviewed by our Cambridge, Massachusetts law firm of Dewey, Cheatem & Howe. We hope to release it within a few days.
Among the topics:
* the real Town organization chart
* how the magic happens
* the challenges an ordinary citizen faces in Town matters
* two chilling examples of how alternative voices are silenced
In addition, there will be updates on the Fiscal 2023 budget and more. Follow the blog to make sure you don’t miss a single issue. Remember, all the important news you won’t find in the Leader is here!
That’s all for now. Thanks for reading the blog and sharing it with family, friends and neighbors who want the real scoop on what’s happening in Scarborough.
Happy trails until next time!
(Nom de blog of Steve Hanly)