MILBRIDGE, Maine — For more than a decade, farm workers and other types of harvesters from abroad have been moving to western Washington County to rake blueberries, process sea creatures and make wreaths, among other things.
The work generally has been seasonal but many of these workers, having migrated to Maine from Latin America, have stayed in the area year round. The legal immigrants have secured their own housing, enrolled their children in local schools and they have tried to fit into the rural, hardworking ethic that defines Down East Maine, according to their supporters.
But a proposal from local community group Mano en Mano — which translates into English as “Hand in Hand” — to build a new, federally funded apartment complex for farm workers is meeting some local resistance. Traffic on Wyman Road where it would be built could be adversely affected, as could groundwater resources, opponents say, and the tax-free development could end up putting a greater burden on the town’s limited resources.
Town officials, concerned that Milbridge doesn’t have appropriate land use ordinances in place for such a project, said they expect to hold a special town meeting in the coming weeks so voters can decide whether to enact a six-month moratorium on multifamily housing developments.
As a preliminary step in reviewing the project, members of the planning board conducted a site visit Thursday to learn more about the 5-acre parcel and its suitability for development.
Officials with Mano en Mano say their goal of constructing the six-unit apartment building, most of which would be funded by a $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is to provide better housing to farm workers and their families who already live in the area.
But Wyman Road resident Daniel Pride, who has convinced about 50 of his neighbors to sign a petition opposing the project, said Thursday that he’s concerned about what it would mean for the local economy. Jobs are hard enough to come by as it is, he said, without importing people to live in what he called low-income housing.
“There’s no work at all here. The jobs are needed by the local people,” said Pride, a retiree who moved to Milbridge from Gorham about a decade ago. “We’re definitely not set up to bring in low-income Hondurans.”
Pride’s neighbor, Lena McKenney, insisted that the concerns neighbors have about the project were not based in the ethnicity of the people who supposedly would live in the building. She said she’s concerned that besides making traffic worse on an accident-prone stretch of road, the housing development would adversely affect the neighborhood in other ways.
“I’m afraid of drugs,” McKenney said. “That’s my concern — what it’s going to bring in, not who.”
Anais Tomezsko, executive director of Mano en Mano, said Thursday during a phone interview that she thinks xenophobia — the fear or hatred of strangers or foreigners — is playing a role in the resistance some people have to the project.
“In my opinion, I do think that is some of the concern,” Tomezsko said.
Though Mano en Mano works mostly with the immigrant Latino community, she said, the housing project is not being reserved for any minority or ethnic population.
Anyone who works in agriculture or a qualified related field, she said, can qualify to rent an apartment in the building.
Attempts Thursday to contact USDA officials for comment about the project were unsuccessful.
Mano en Mano is pursuing the project because multiple studies have indicated that standard, affordable housing is in short supply in the area, according to Tomezsko. People who qualify to live in the building must be at least 18 years old and must either have a farm job or live with a relative who does.
“I get calls on a weekly basis from people looking for housing,” Tomezsko said. “They are living in trailers that are overcrowded or substandard.”
Tomezsko said Mano en Mano has commissioned a traffic study, the results of which indicated that the project would not result in a significant increase in volume of cars on Wyman Road. The building will have its own well and septic system. She said that, as far as she knows, none of the nearby homeowners on Wyman Road has problems with their septic systems or wells.
There are between 100 and 150 Hispanics who live in Milbridge, of which 22 are children who attend local schools, and about 600 who live in Washington County, she said.
Beth Russet, a board member with Mano en Mano, said Thursday that, for the most part, there have been few complications with the immigration of Latinos into the area.
“Milbridge has been recognized for making people feel welcome,” she said. “People have felt welcome. They like the school system. They like the community.”
Milbridge Town Manager Lewis Pinkham said Thursday that the town has been looking into a six-month moratorium on multifamily development because it needs more time to put proper standards in place. The only land use zoning Milbridge has now, he said, is for subdivisions and for the shore-land zone.
The project, which could be delayed by a retroactive moratorium vote, qualifies as a subdivision and so is being reviewed by the planning board, according to Pinkham. But town officials still want to get a better construction ordinance in place before they move ahead.
“Our building ordinance is really, really vague,” Pinkham said.
He said that the town has a draft version of the proposed moratorium and expects to have a final version ready by the time it holds a special town meeting on the issue sometime in May.