Milbridge delays housing project

Posted June 19, 2009, at 8:02 p.m.

MILBRIDGE, Maine — As a result of a special town meeting held Tuesday, voters here have approved a six-month municipal moratorium on the development of multifamily housing.

But they also soon might have a lawsuit on their hands, according to representatives of a local nonprofit organization that wants to construct an apartment building on Wyman Road.

The voting results were 68 people in favor of the moratorium and 49 people opposed, Milbridge Town Manager Lewis Pinkham said Thursday morning. He said that with the voters’ approval, the moratorium is retroactive to April 8, when local selectmen voted to support it. The moratorium is set to expire in early October.

Mano en Mano is a local nonprofit organization that has received a $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to construct a six-unit apartment building for farmworkers on Wyman Road. Mano en Mano presented its application for local building permits to the town’s planning board last month.

The project is needed, according to Mano en Mano, because much of the housing in the area now occupied by farmworkers is crowded and substandard. The new apartments would be available to anyone who works in agriculture or related industries and who lives in the area year-round, Mano en Mano officials have said. Mi-grant workers, who move long distances with the seasons to find work, would not be eligible to live in the building.

But some residents and officials had concerns that the building could have an adverse effect on the town. Neighbors to the project said the project could affect groundwater resources and generate unwanted traffic on Wyman Road. Town officials were concerned that Milbridge did not have enough zoning standards in place to determine appropriately what standards the building should meet.

Pinkham said Thursday that the proposal from Mano en Mano, which translates into English as “Hand in Hand,” now would have to wait.

“Their project will be put on hold because of the moratorium,” he said.

He said the planning board was scheduled to meet Thursday night to begin discussing how to improve the town’s zoning ordinances.

Anais Tomezsko, executive director of Mano en Mano, said Thursday that the group plans to challenge the legality of the moratorium in Washington County Superior Court. She declined to discuss the group’s legal arguments.

Tomezsko said the moratorium vote raises questions about the town that residents need to ask themselves, including whether they are discriminating against the local Latino population, which most likely would benefit from the project.

“Does this vote have that implication?” she asked rhetorically.

Mano en Mano was prepared to have the project approved in accordance with the town’s subdivision ordinance, just as other larger subdivision developments on Wyman Road recently have been, Tomezsko said. She said she is concerned that, if the moratorium were extended for another six months in October, the project would be delayed that much longer or perhaps could be prohibited altogether by whatever new zoning regulations the town may adopt.

Mano en Mano’s attorney, Edmond Bearor of Bangor, said Thursday that he doesn’t think the town has legal standing to implement the moratorium, regardless of the voting results.

By statute, he said, a moratorium can be implemented only if the town’s resources would be overburdened or if there would be some other type of public harm without it, he said.

The building will not be connected to town water or sewer or other public utilities, he said, and there would be no public harm created by the six-unit apartment building. Bearor also said he thinks the moratorium, because it has the appearance of being directed at the local Latino population, may violate nondiscrimination clauses of the federal Fair Housing Act.

“I don’t think there’s a legal basis for the moratorium,” he said. “We’ll be bringing claims that the Fair Housing Act is being violated.”

Bearor said he expects to file Mano en Mano’s challenge in court by the end of the coming week.

Attempts on Thursday and Friday to contact Pinkham, the town manager, for further comment were unsuccessful. He was not in the town office Friday and was not expected to return until Monday, according to a town staff member.

Milbridge Selectman George Brace, contacted at his home Friday morning, denied that the town or the voters are discriminating against Latinos or any other group. He said the town has been consulting with an attorney about the brewing legal battle.

“I don’t feel it is [discriminatory],” Brace said. “The town is struggling to deal with the costs presented by this project.”

Brace said that, because Mano en Mano is a nonprofit organization, it would not have to pay property taxes to the town. Yet, if the apartments are filled to capacity, there could be as many as 18 children living there whose education would be paid for by local taxpayers, he said. Milbridge has approximately 1,100 residents, he said.

“That would put $6,000 worth of expenses on the townspeople,” Brace said. “I don’t think voters are being discriminatory. I think they are being realistic.”

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