A group of Westbrook residents wants to make sure the public will be heard concerning plans unveiled last week for more than 300 additional housing units at the Blue Spruce Farm subdivision.
Members of the group, which largely has been assembled since last week, are concerned that the added development could be a breaking point for the surrounding area, and are requesting that a public hearing be held, along with a comprehensive traffic study of the neighborhood.
The developer, Risbara Bros. Construction, says the proposed Phase 2 of its subdivision – a mix of mostly market-rate apartments and some single-family homes – meets a need in Greater Portland, and that the proposal will meet the zoning standards of the city. The 36-acre development off Spring Street is being built on the former Clarke Farm property. The additional units would be built on 42 adjacent, primarily wooded acres.
When the developer presented the project during a Planning Board workshop last week, a number of residents spoke out against the added development, saying that it would be too much, too fast for an area that is already in need of infrastructure repairs and may soon see more development at the nearby former Twin Falls golf course.
A document signed by a “gathering of concerned citizens” was sent to each member of the Westbrook City Council and Planning Board last week. Since that time, Mayor Colleen Hilton said she has discussed holding a meeting with a few members of the group.
Flynn Ross, a Middle Street resident and professor at the University of Southern Maine, spoke out last week in response to the project, and also drafted the materials sent to city officials. She argues that the proposed development, which calls for 20, 12-unit apartment buildings, and more homes and condominiums, is too large for the area to handle, especially with other developments nearby.
“There is definitely a need for affordable housing in the Greater Portland area, but I’m not sure Westbrook needs to absorb most of that, and in such a small area,” she said.
Last week, the document sent to city officials was signed by 38 residents, but Ross said that number has grown in the past week. Ross said city councilors have acknowledged the document, and that Hilton has requested a meeting with members of the group, City Planner Jennie Franceschi and City Administrator Jerre Bryant.
While building Phase 1, which includes 189 units, Risbara acquired the 42 acres of adjacent property from Westbrook Land Co. and resident Daniel Chick. Most of the land is wooded, and would be accessed by Prospect Street.
Part of the citizens group’s goals is for a traffic study of the area.
“Neither Prospect nor Brackett are currently equipped to handle the additional traffic flow,” the document reads. “It would require major upgrades to the sidewalks on both, painted lines, and probably a light at the intersection of Brackett and William Clarke Drive.”
Rocco Risbara, part of the Scarborough company co-owned by three brothers, said Tuesday that he thought traffic was one of the legitimate concerns brought forward at the meeting, but was disappointed by comments made that called the rentals “transient” properties.
He also said the concerns for open space, buffering and school impacts are warranted, and are all part of the city and state’s approval process.
“We’re going to work through the process and come up with answers,” he said.
Hilton said Tuesday that people have been stopping into City Hall, voicing concerns and asking questions. She said part of the reaction to large projects like Blue Spruce Farm is the visuals.
“It’s always sad to see farmland go,” she said, adding that the city reached out to the owners of Twin Falls golf course when it was for sale this past year, but were not contacted. It was eventually bought by the Priority Real Estate Group of Topsham.
She said Blue Spruce is “meeting a need” in the area, but that the size of the development is overwhelming.
“It’s also ahead of schedule and not yet completed or landscaped,” she said, referring to the criticism over how it looks from Spring Street.
Much of the conversation last week, including from some Planning Board members, was also about visuals. One resident called Phase 1 an “architectural abortion.”
Risbara said the company laid down 50,000 square feet of sod this week, part of the landscaping.
Hilton also said that there had been unfortunate negativity surrounding the rental properties. Some residents speaking last week argued that rental properties are often not cared for at the same level of home ownership.
The Risbara rentals are market rate, and are managed by Risbara’s own management company, Maine Properties, LLC.
“I was appalled with the attitude of some neighbors that tenants are transient people,” Risbara said, adding that their management company has demographics of the people already living in the Blue Spruce apartments. He said these include a mix of young and middle-aged professionals, grad students and retired people.
“Their careers are in law enforcement, firefighting, the banking and insurance industry and with firms such as Maine Med, Idexx, Fed Ex and Acadia Insurance, to name a few,” he said in an email last week. “To say that these people don’t consider their apartments a home and treat them as such is simply not right.”
Ross said that since the group of neighbors began talking about the project, they began to utilize their different expertise to study the development details.
“We have neighbors who work in transportation, and neighbors who work on environmental issues,” she said. “A lot of people are talking.”
She said that with nearby housing such as Westbrook Pointe, the Stroudwater Landing senior campus still being developed, and a future project at Twin Falls in the pipeline, both the area and the school system will be under tremendous stress.
She, along with other residents, worry that the high number of rental properties will have a negative impact on the neighborhood and its schools.
Studies from both the developer, and now the school department, hope to put numbers on the school impact. But, the first population study by Portland-based firm Planning Decisions has already been criticized by residents.
Ross has one child in Saccarappa Elementary School, and one who has already passed through the school. In the past year, the school district has been working toward a renovation project at Saccarappa and an expansion at Westbrook Middle School.
At recent school meetings, officials have said the the impact from Blue Spruce Farm may change the scope of work at Saccarappa, which includes 12 additional classrooms. They are set to approve hiring Planning Decisions to do the school department’s own study Wednesday, after the American Journal’s deadline.
School Committee Chairman Jim Violette said the study would analyze the entire city. He also said the expansion at Saccarappa, which is all one level, is being designed to be structurally sound enough to add a second floor in the future.
“When this news came out with Risbara, we were happy that was part of the plan,” he said.
Risbara said Planning Decisions has begun work on a study for Phase 2, which his firm expects to reflect numbers similar to that of Phase 1. There are currently 10 school-aged children and another 10 toddlers living in Phase 1. Half of the apartments in both phases are one bedroom.
Another resident, Kathleen O’Neill-Lussier, started a Facebook group called “Westbrook Citizens for Sustainable Growth” following the start of Phase 1 construction. She said Tuesday that she had been planning on creating a document like the one Ross has sent to city officials, but that Ross beat her to it. Now, they appear to be working in tandem on social media to inform the public.
O’Neill-Lussier said she began the group in response to her concerns about overcrowding schools, the state of nearby infrastructure and the “unsightly nature” of Phase 1.
“I believe that any residential growth, at this point, should be measured and considerate of the fact that there are virtually no seats available at our three primary schools, the cafeterias are beyond capacity and (at least some of) the buses are full,” she said.
Both groups believe that the city should require impact fees coinciding with the level of construction. She also believes the city should cap the number of new housing units permitted in a year.
“With property values going up and Portland running out of space, we are at a juncture; we can allow rampant, unchecked growth or we can make sure that checks and balances are in place,” she said.
Some of the discussion has also surrounded the number of special exceptions made for Blue Spruce Farm, a part of the city’s land use ordinance that gives the Planning Board more say. A multi-family building in the zone requires a special exception.
Risbara said he understands the concerns from neighbors, but says that “there is a lot of misinformation out there,” including the misconception that Risbara’s development is on the Twin Falls property. He said the area is zoned to allow for the second-highest housing density in the city.
“This is where they want people,” he said.
When asked why the Phase 2 development is mostly apartment buildings, Risbara said the decision was made based on the market, and the land. He said there are many crevices in the land that would make individual house lots difficult.
“It doesn’t lay out well for house lots,” he said. “It’s a great multi-family site.”
A site walk was scheduled by the Planning Board for Saturday, July 16, at 9 a.m., which he expects to take more than two hours based on the size of the property. A site plan and potential public hearing could be in front of the board in August.
Blue Spruce Farm Phase 2, on left, was unveiled during a Planning Board workshop last week, and was met with criticism from neighboring residents. A group of neighbors have contacted the city in hopes of slowing the development.
This aerial image shows the Blue Spruce Farm subdivision in February, with Phase 1 underway. Since that time, Risbara Bros. has acquired 42 additional acres to the west, which is the primarily wooded area at the top of the image.