Closer look: commonspace’s canceling of Wiscasset housing plans

Thu, 06/13/2024 - 3:45pm

    To learn more about what went wrong with commonspace’s try at creating housing upstairs at St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, Wiscasset Newspaper followed up with the town, the church, commonspace and the state agency that had nodded a grant; and, upon request, the newspaper received from the town any correspondence between town agents, or between the town and commonspace or its agents, in connection with the project.

    Based on the information and some of the responses gathered, town rules may have made the original dozen units a virtual non-starter, and some closer communication could have put hopes for the grant-funded project to bed sooner. Who if anyone could have communicated better depends on who you ask or what you are looking at; but the church and commonspace have each moved on to other things and no one said the lost project at one Wiscasset site dashes the prospects for affordable housing in the area; the factors were site-specific and grant-specific. 

    Town Manager Dennis Simmons directed questions on the commonspace project to Emily Rabbe, executive director of Lincoln County Regional Planning Commission. Wiscasset contracts with LCRPC for help with land use planning. 

    Rabbe told Wiscasset Newspaper the would-be housing at the Hodge Street church “got as far as a pre-submission meeting between myself, Brian Townsend (executive director) of Commonspace, and representatives of St. Philip’s, held on April 10, 2024. As the contracted Town Planner for Wiscasset, a pre-submission meeting with potential applicants to provide an overview of the site plan review process and answer questions about the application form and submission requirements is common. This was the first conversation with Commonspace where a concept plan was shared with a representative for the Town.

    “The project was (subsequently) halted by Commonspace before any application materials (i.e., plan sets, application forms, etc.) were submitted to the Town for a pre-application meeting (with) or site plan review by the Planning Board,” Rabbe said.

    Wiscasset Newspaper asked the town and commonspace about part of the church’s recent announcement on the project’s canceling. The announcement quoted commonspace as saying, “Our project team, including the architect we hired to draft the project design plan, had been operating until just a few weeks ago under an interpretation of town statutes related to permissible site usage that proved to be incorrect. When we learned that we would be limited to a considerably lower number of dwelling units than the number we had applied to construct, we reached out to MaineHousing to request that our agreement be amended to allow for this reduction. Unfortunately, the significant reduction we were requesting would have represented a material change in the existing agreement, and would thus void the agreement. Given this, we had no choice but to withdraw the proposal we had made … With this funding no longer available to us, and with no replacement funding available, we unfortunately had no choice but to abandon this project.”

    Asked June 11 if he knew how commonspace’s project team came to be operating under an incorrect interpretation of the town statutes, as he noted in the letter to the church, Townsend responded, “I don’t really have any more detail to share on that. The architect we engaged had the conversations (with the town) about the ordinances, along with completing his own review. Our operating assumption was that the site would allow for the number of dwelling units we were proposing, and they turned out to be a wrong assumption.” He added about the lost project, “We are really disappointed about this turn of events.”

    So was St. Philip’s, according to senior warden Jon Young. In a phone interview June 12, Young said the initial plan for single room occupancy (SRO) units would have gone a long way to helping keep the historic church going. As the plans changed, eventually down to what would have served two families, the revenue would have been much less, but the outreach remained a reason to do it, Young explained.

    The loss of the project has put even more import on the church’s capital fund drive, Young said. “We have to make sure we have enough money to stay afloat.” Members are working on multiple fronts to raise somewhere around $200,000, if possible by year’s end, including for maintenance and upkeep, such as a paint job he said it needs. In the interview, Young wondered if the town could have done more, sooner, to make clear to commonspace what would or would not meet town rules.

    According to comments and materials the newspaper obtained, the town shared its skepticism about the would-be, 12-unit project a year ago, with commonspace, then known as Amistad.

    According to Rabbe June 10 and emails between her and planning board chair Karl Olson in spring 2023, the town learned about Maine Housing Authority’s (MaineHousing) grant – to Amistad to develop 12 SRO’s at St. Philips – from the Wiscasset Newspaper.

    In an email to Rabbe the evening of March 26, 2023, Olson sends Rabbe the link to the article on the grant and adds, “If (Dennis) thought that his phone was ringing before ...”

    Rabbe replies to Olson, she had seen the article “and I’ve been scratching my head since, trying to figure out how to even review this project based on the current town ordinances. Even with LD2003 I don’t know that the site could get to the 12 units proposed ...” Olson tells her he, too, mulled that and couldn’t figure it out. He tells Rabbe, “Then (I) decided to recommend that if/when they actually have a proposal, that they meet with the planner.”

    In fulfilling the Freedom of Access Act request, the town redacted, or blacked out, parts of those emails and some others, as not related to the project. 

    Rabbe told Wiscasset Newspaper, Amistad determined the proposed number of units “without consultation from the Town ... Mr. Olson and I were unsure how Commonspace came to that number of units based on zoning at the time as well as the density potential under LD 2003, for which final rulemaking was still under development by the State.”

    Rabbe said she and Olson met in mid-April 2023 with Townsend to discuss a separate proposal at St. Philip’s for a wellness center. (Last July 28, commonspace withdrew its business license request for the center after selectmen tabled it July 18.) The April 2023 meeting with Townsend about the center came weeks after the article on the housing grant. At the April 2023 meeting on the center, “we also had a discussion about how Commonspace intended to develop 12 SROs under existing town ordinances as the Town was skeptical the proposed number would be permitted under Wiscasset Town Ordinances,” Rabbe said. “This conversation was high-level and no official interpretations were made as (1) LD2003 was still under final-rulemaking and (2) a site survey of the property was not available at the meeting to confirm the lot area of the parcel.”

    Rabbe continued, “Discussions with the Town about the contemplated housing project went dormant until November of 2023 when I received an email from Mr. Townsend requesting to schedule a phone call with me. That phone call took place on Thursday, Nov. 16, 2023 and the topic ... was a brief update on the project, including that Commonspace was working with an architect on plan development and that they were looking to hold a community informational meeting on Dec. 14, 2023 at the Wiscasset Community Center. Commonspace did not request any interpretation of Ordinances about the allowed density for the subject parcel during that phone call. No one from LCRPC attended the informational meeting held on Dec. 14 as it was the same evening as (outgoing LCRPC executive director) Mary Ellen Barnes’ retirement party.”

    Rabbe said the next round of correspondence came this year, in early April when the architect on the housing contacted her to schedule a pre-submission meeting for April 10. That meeting at the LCRPC office “was the first opportunity a representative from the Town saw a proposed floor plan for the contemplated development. The plan proposed 10 SROs, a reduction from the originally contemplated 12 units,” Rabbe said. She said the architect and commonspace proposed the development be considered congregate housing. 

    But the project team had overlooked a lot size requirement, Rabbe said. “It was explained to the project team that the parcel, which is 1.2 acres (about 52,272 square feet) and (in) the Village II District, has a minimum lot area of one acre, unless connected to public sewer and water when the minimum lot area becomes 20,000 square feet ... The property is connected to public sewer and public water, so the site can accommodate two uses under Town Ordinances.

    “The Church facility counts as one use, claiming the first 20,000 square feet of lot area, so by Code the site can accommodate one dwelling unit as a second use, claiming the second 20,000 square feet of lot area. The site has a remaining 12,000 square feet, roughly, of lot area but that cannot have a use added to it given the 20,000 square foot minimum lot area. These requirements have been in the Town Ordinance since at least 2020, the last time (the rule) was updated prior to the most recent update to incorporate LD 2003,” Rabbe said.

    “Under LD 2003, a designated long-term affordable development can get a density bonus of 2.5 times the base density. This ... would allow for two designated affordable units on the St. Philip’s property ... Following this interpretation I worked with Commonspace and St. Philip’s to determine whether a configuration of two three-bedroom units would be permitted under the Town Ordinance. It would be, in as much as the Town Ordinance does not restrict the number of bedrooms in a dwelling unit. The intent by the project team would be to provide two affordable units for families. However, as described in the email from Mr. Townsend dated May 2, 2024, the revised plans deviated too far from the original proposal for MaineHousing to endorse them.”

    In that May 2 email to Rabbe, Townsend writes: “I obviously wish that our team had better understood the restrictions prior to our fulfillment of so much of the planning ... but I am very grateful that you pointed these out to us (and) in general for your ... helpful information and consulting along the way. We are deeply disappointed that we won’t be adding this needed housing resource for Wiscasset at this time, but we will certainly look to partner with MaineHousing and other funders in the future to try to add affordable housing units in this area.”

    Rabbe then wishes commonspace “the best in your efforts to increase the availability of affordable housing” and says to keep in touch if looking at possible projects in Lincoln County. 

    Could commonspace have sought a variance? Rabbe said there was not a way for that, but she said commonspace and St. Philips were advised April 10, they could request the town consider amending the ordinance to allow increased density.  

    Asked for any insights that might help inform future, similar project(s) in the town, or aid public understanding of the potential for them, Rabbe said the town office and the planning board “always recommend having a conversation prior to getting too far along with design plans. This can be a conversation with the Planner or Code Enforcement Officer to understand the regulatory requirements and/or a pre-application meeting with the Planning Board.”

    This is not the first project MaineHousing has seen that did not come to be. Spokesman Scott Thistle said there are occasionally projects “unable to move forward for a variety (of) reasons including zoning issues or the result of local opposition to an affordable development.”

    Thistle said MaineHousing’s leadership team had been “very encouraged by the proposal and the thought and effort that was put into (it) by those trying to improve housing options and housing stability in Wiscasset. MaineHousing does not currently have any other proposals for Wiscasset before us, but we do have affordable housing developments moving forward all over Maine including nearly 1,000 new affordable homes that are under construction this summer – with thousands more in our financing pipeline for 2025, 2026, and beyond.”

    As for the church, Young emphasized the need for fundraising for it, its worship services which are open to all, and its outreach programs to still have a home there. Without it, he doesn’t know where the bargain basement and food pantry would go, and noted Alcoholics Anonymous has met there for decades.

    “All of these help the community,” Young said. He said members are asking for help “saving the historic church (and its) heroic mission.” For more about the fund drive, call the church at 882-7184 from 12:30 to 3:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays, or call any other time and leave a message.