June 19, 2018
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Ellsworth council approves land sale for senior housing

By Kevin Miller, BDN Staff

ELLSWORTH, Maine — A divided City Council voted Monday night to sell roughly 2 acres to a developer hoping to build a senior housing complex in a residential neighborhood near downtown.

But the proposal only passed after council members agreed to double the price for the land — from $15,000 to $30,000 — in response to concerns that the city was asking too little for property in a neighborhood adjacent to Leonard Lake.

City officials initially had proposed selling 4 acres of an 8-acre tract near the corner of Wood Street and Shore Road to Penquis Housing for a 26-unit senior housing complex.

But on Monday, City Manager Michelle Beal said it was determined the developer only needed 1.87 acres. The remaining acreage — which includes all lakefront land and the area of an existing trail — would remain in city hands and be protected from future development through a conservation easement.

The project enjoys strong support from city officials, who have made expanding affordable housing options for elderly residents a high priority. But it has encountered opposition from some residents who view the 22,600-square-foot building as too large for the quiet residential neighborhood.

Councilor Matthew Boucher echoed those concerns on Monday, saying that he believes there are more appropriate locations for the building and that he felt the city was moving too fast on the project.

“I want to take a step back and let people have a little more discussion on this project,” Boucher said.

Beal and other councilors responded that private land would be too expensive for the project to remain viable. Additionally, the only other two city-owned parcels — the former Charles C. Knowlton School and the Moore School — are slated for development of a park and a senior citizen community center.

Boucher and several other council members also expressed concerns about selling the property to Penquis Housing — a subsidiary of the Penquis community service agency — for $15,000 without first assessing the value of the property.

An initial vote on the land sale failed after the council tied 3-3. But then Councilor John Philips suggested setting the price at $30,000, which he said would be closer to the per-acre price for a lot in Ellsworth. That motion passed 4-2 after Philips changed his vote.

The price change will not address many of the apprehensions expressed by residents of the neighborhood where the complex would be built.

Don Herrington, a would-be neighbor of the senior housing facility, argued that the city should at least examine alternative sites in the city that would be more appropriate for a building of this size.

“It’s an enormous building,” Herrington said during a public hearing before the council’s vote. “This isn’t just something that is going to change the neighborhood a little bit. This is a white elephant stuck on the corner near the park.”

But several councilors as well as Beal pointed out that the neighborhood near Leonard Lake has witnessed numerous changes over the years. The neighborhood is situated between two schools and the city has upgraded the infrastructure in recent years.

Beal pointed out that Ellsworth offers few affordable housing options for elderly residents. Plus senior citizens use fewer community services such as schools and often spend their money locally.

“It’s also the right thing to do,” Beal said. “There is a very strong need for senior housing in the city of Ellsworth.”

Councilors also voted unanimously to create an affordable housing tax increment financing district for the site, thereby allowing the city to offer tax breaks to Penquis that will enable the agency to keep rents low for residents.

The city planning board is still reviewing the project. And Stephen Mooers, CEO of Penquis Housing, said the agency still must compete for grant funding for the project. Although not necessarily a deal-breaker, the $15,000 in additional cost could further complicate the project, he said.

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