City Council shoots down impact fees

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The Westbrook City Council has rejected ordinance amendments to implement impact fees in the city.

WESTBROOK — The City Council has decided not to move forward with school and sewer impact fees despite almost a year of work on ordinance amendments.

The council on Monday night rejected the two ordinance amendments at first reading. The general impact fee ordinance amendment, which allows impact fees to exist, was approved, though.

Councilors on Aug. 7 also approved accepting the SAFER (Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response) grant to hire eight new firefighters.

The general impact fee ordinance was approved 6-1, with Councilor Ann Peoples opposed. The amendment doesn’t implement any fees, but allows the city to do so in the future.

“I think we’re making a serious mistake if we go any further with this,” Peoples said.

Most of the other councilors agreed. The school impact fee ordinance amendment failed 2-5, with councilors Victor Chau and Gary Rairdon in favor of it. The sewer impact fee ordinance amendment also failed 2-5, with Rairdon and Council Vice President John O’Hara in favor of it.

The City Council first discussed impact fees in October 2016 when it asked the city administration to research impact fees. The request aligned with discussion around development projects in the city, including the Blue Spruce Farm development, the school expansion project and the Ridge, the Waterstone retail development plaza at 80 Main St.

If they had been approved, the fees levied on developers would have been used by the city to pay for new or improved facilities that were needed only because of new development. The school impact fees would have been based upon the number of units in new or renovated residential dwellings. A two-bedroom single-family home would have had a fee of $735, a three-bedroom home would have been $3,245, a four-bedroom home would have been $3,483, and five-bedroom home would have been $4,084.

The sewer impact fee would have applied to new construction, expansion of existing units or businesses, or a change of use at an existing building. The one-time fee would have been based on average daily water water use at $4.72 per gallon per day.

“I support the concept of impact fees, but these fees are too high,” Council President Brendan Rielly said.

In May, the council asked the Planning Board to create amendments to the city’s Land Use Ordinance to establish impact fees. The Planning Board last week unanimously approved recommending the general impact fee and the school impact fee to the council for adoption.

The sewer impact fee failed at Planning Board level with a vote of 3-3.

Council discussion on the issue lasted two hours Monday with lengthy back-and-forths between councilors, city administrators, and members of the public. Those opposed to the fees said they wouldn’t be fair to people and businesses looking to move to the city.

“We shouldn’t be putting these fees on the backs of new people who want to move here,” former city councilor Mike Foley said.

Foley said impact fees would also negatively effect the economic growth the city is striving for.

“This makes a huge speed bump in development in the city of Westbrook,” he said.

Some councilors said they thought the impact fees would create the impression that Westbrook wasn’t open to new businesses.

“I think it’s going to deter people,” Councilor Anna Turcotte said. “It’s going to send the wrong message.”

John Bigelow, a co-owner of the recently opened Yes Brewing, said he was very concerned about sewer impact fees. The fees, which had a retroactivity clause of Oct. 3, 2016, that councilors removed before their final vote, would have been based upon water usage.

“To be honest, it’s a bit of a scare for us,” Bigelow said.

Breweries, which use an average of seven gallons of water to create one gallon of beer according to growlermag.com, would have strongly felt the effects of the sewer impact fees. Some councilors said this could have caused breweries to locate in other towns despite Westbrook’s desire to become a beer destination.

Councilors made a variety of motions during the meeting, including sending the language back to the Planning Board for revision and referring the issue to a workshop, all of which failed. Ultimately the school and sewer impact fees failed. The general impact fee ordinance amendment will go to the council for a second and final reading on Aug. 21.

SAFER grant

The City Council on Aug. 7 also accepted the SAFER grant of $962,000 to hire eight firefighters.

The grant, which was discussed in workshop July 20 and approved at first reading on July 24, was approved 5-2 with councilor O’Hara and Peoples opposed.

“As nice as it is that there’s money out there to support the community, in the end it doesn’t really support the community,” Peoples said.

The SAFER grant, which is from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, will fund the eight positions for three years. The city will be obligated to cover 25 percent of the cost of the positions for the first two years and 65 percent of the cost for the third year.

The city isn’t obligated to maintain the eight positions after the grant period is over. O’Hara said he didn’t support the grant because he thinks the City Council three years from now won’t lay off eight people and the city will have to add the cost of salaries to the budget.

“To add eight personnel, it’s not something I think we can bear,” he said.

Councilor Chau said he hopes retirements will open up positions in three years so the new hires can stay on. If not, he said he would approve layoffs.

“I will tell you that if I’m still here in three years, I will not be supporting eight positions,” he said.

Fire Chief Andrew Turcotte said while he understands the hesitation around the grant, accepting it is the right decision.

“I would rather utilize this grant money now than to come to (the City Council) one or two years from now saying I need four, six or eight positions,” Turcotte said.

Kate Gardner can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or kgardner@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter: @katevgardner.

The Westbrook City Council has rejected ordinance amendments to implement impact fees in the city.

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