ELLSWORTH, Maine — City officials voted Friday to begin negotiations to sell city-owned land to a developer hoping to build a senior housing facility near downtown Ellsworth despite concerns raised by some would-be neighbors of the proposed complex.
Penquis Housing, a subsidiary of the Penquis community service agency, is hoping to acquire 4 acres of an 8-acre tract located between the Knowlton School and Leonard Lake for a 26-unit affordable housing complex catering to senior citizens.
As in many towns throughout Maine, there is a dearth of alternative, affordable housing options for elderly residents in Ellsworth, and city officials have made it a priority to encourage the development of such projects.
On Friday, the City Council voted unanimously to commence negotiations with Penquis about selling the land for the project, which still needs to go before the city planning board. Additionally, councilors took a first step toward offering Penquis tax breaks that would be used to keep rents low in the facility.
To make room for the two-story housing complex, Penquis would purchase and demolish a rental property located on the corner of Wood Street and Shore Road and likely would develop up to 2 acres of the mostly wooded city-owned parcel.
But some would-be neighbors of the facility, while praising the goal of the project, raised concerns about how the 22,600-square-foot building and accompanying lights and traffic would change their quiet, secluded residential neighborhood. They also objected to building such a complex on a forested parcel of city land that several speakers on Friday called “a gem.”
“It’s Ellsworth’s Walden Pond,” said Don Herrington, comparing Leonard Lake to the Massachusetts pond made famous by Henry David Thoreau. “Ellsworth has this gem that is sitting right in the middle of town that anyone can use.”
The Leonard Lake Senior Housing complex, as the proposed facility is called, would feature 22 one-bedroom units and four two-bedroom units as well as laundry facilities and a community center for residents. Penquis officials have said the site is preferable because of the proximity to downtown — a requirement when competing for grants — and the presumably low price.
Addressing residents’ concerns about the wooded property, City Manager Michelle Beal pointed out that the development would only occupy about 2 acres. The remaining 6 acres — including the waterfront area and an existing path — would remain untouched and could be further protected through a conservation easement, she said.
Stephen Mooers, CEO of Penquis Housing, pledged to minimize impacts and disturbances to the neighborhood by leaving as many trees as possible and planting new trees or other buffers, as requested by abutters.
“We will do our very best to minimize the reduction of green space,” Mooers said.
Critics, however, suggested that there were more appropriate locations in town for such a project, one of which is right across the street on the property of the former Knowlton School.
Ellsworth officials plan to demolish the school as early as this month to make room for a multiuse park — to be known as Knowlton Park — featuring a basketball court, ice rink, an amphitheater, playgrounds, a pavilion, trails and grassy areas. A special committee is seeking grant money and private donations for the park project.
The city also hopes to convert the nearby Moore school into a senior citizen center, all of which Mooers and Beal said add to the appeal of building senior housing near Leonard Lake.
But Mike Benjamin, who lives diagonally across the street from the site of the proposed housing complex, said it doesn’t make sense for the city to use grant money to clear the already-developed school lot and then for Penquis to use grants to develop a largely undeveloped lot.
“If this is such an important need in our community, why don’t you go right to the Knowlton School site?” Benjamin said. He further suggested that erecting a new building nearly as long as a football field would change the character of the neighborhood and the wooded, waterfront tract that so many people enjoy.
“I’m not against change but let’s look at the impacts here and what it is doing to the neighborhood,” Benjamin said.
Councilor Stephen Beathem, who used to own property in the neighborhood, responded by pointing out that about 25 years ago homeowners fought against a city attempt to add a canoe or kayak launch at Leonard Lake. And then residents contested the walking path that many in the audience now say they love, he added.
“It seems now we want to do something different and we are hearing the same thing: ‘We don’t want anything there,’” Beathem said. “Change is going to happen.”
While the council members voted unanimously to enter into negotiations with Penquis, the board is divided about how much the city should ask. Council Chairman Gary Fortier said he would be willing to sell it to Penquis for $1 because of the need for senior housing, but other councilors said the city should be compensated more for the property.
City officials also urged residents to share their concerns about traffic, building design, lighting and landscaping with the planning board, which is responsible for reviewing those aspects of the project. The board is slated to begin discussing the Leonard Lake senior housing project at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 7.