ORONO, Maine — The latest efforts to revitalize the town moved closer to fruition Wednesday when the planning board approved two major development projects for the Park Street area, despite some public opposition.
The respective approvals of The Avenue, a 270-unit student housing complex from New York-based developer Park7 Group, as well as a gas station, convenience store, Dunkin Donuts complex proposed by Massachusetts-based Global Montello, were met with resistance from several Orono residents who attended the meeting.
The Avenue will be the second off-campus student housing development built in Orono in three years and will be located at the end of Washburn drive. The complex will be located halfway between Orono’s two other off-campus student housing developments, The Grove and Orchard Trails, and will be larger than both.
According to town planner Evan Richert, the goal of the comprehensive plan for Orono is to begin incorporating more highly developed economic infrastructure in a way that can balance the needs of single-family neighborhoods and the needs of larger businesses that could come to the town. The construction of student housing facilities and the development of a fiber optic network for gigabit-speed Internet are examples of these changes.
To counter the trend of college graduates leaving Maine, Orono has been working to attract and retain more college students from the University of Maine in a bid to improve the town’s economic viability.
Comprehensive plans are required by state law from each town as a way of mapping out their economic and population goals every 10 years. The formation of Orono’s current comprehensive plan began last year and will be an ongoing process through 2014, according to Richert.
“The [comprehensive plan] is a blueprint, a guide that provides direction for the town [and future ordinances].” Richert said.
Richert said under the new comprehensive plan a project the size of The Avenue will no longer have the opportunity to pass, meaning it will be the largest development for the foreseeable future.
“If [a project like The Avenue is] proposed two years from now, it would have to be smaller.” Richert said. “If [the development] wanted 270 units, they would have fewer bedrooms per unit. … If they wanted to keep the same number of bedrooms per unit, they would have to have fewer units and more open space.”
Residents expressed concern about both projects Wednesday. Much of the protest centered around The Avenue, with concerns raised about the possibility of excessive noise similar to The Grove, a housing complex that opened in 2012.
“Our lives have been changed forever by these developments,” Orono resident Kathy Pollard said. Pollard has been a resident of Park Street since 1987.
Since the construction of The Grove complex, located directly across the street from her house, Pollard said she has barely gotten any sleep during the school year due to the noise.
“If it’s not traffic, it’s hordes of young people walking down the road at night. It wouldn’t be a problem if they had the capacity to consider those they may be disturbing at night,” Pollard said during the public comment portion of the meeting.
Pollard expressed her concern that The Avenue will only compound the problem by bringing “similar cohorts” to the area.
The gas station complex also drew its share of criticism, as residents were concerned about an increase in traffic at an already busy intersection. The gas station will be located at 103 Park St. and will be built on the lot where The College store stands. The College Store went out of business in 2012 and will be demolished to make way for the new project.
According to Patrick Collins, principal senior senior scientist at St. Germain Collins, the current design of the gas station parking lot will not have a significant impact on the current intersection and will pass DOT inspection. St. Germain Collins is an environmental consulting engineering firm out of Westbrook that was hired by Global Montello to assist in the design.
Collins said Global Montello would work with the DOT and the town of Orono to resolve any traffic flow problems that may arise due to the station. He also specified the current design is only an interim solution that will be revamped once the roundabout is installed at the intersection of Park Street and Rangeley Road in 2016.
Orono resident Susan Whitmore expressed concerns about the project.
“At recent council meetings, there’ve been discussions about traffic flow and the problems associated with it. I think this project could compound those problems,” Whitmore said. “I think it’s a waste of resources. The buildings that are there were recently renovated and are very nice buildings and could become very nice businesses. I think demolishing them and building a doughnut shop is kind of hasty.”
Fellow Orono resident Michael Opitz has been against the development of The Avenue since the first planning board hearing and vented his frustration that the planning board continues to approve such developments.
“[In these meetings,] Things go smoothly through, but the feeling in the town is different,” Opitz said. “There’s lots of development going on [on Park Street], and I don’t like it. I don’t understand it.”
Pollard mirrored Opitz’s concern with the direction of the town.
“This urbanization that seems to be an unfolding process in Orono is a completely different type of [land use] and it can’t be reversed once it’s allowed,” Pollard said, addressing the planning board members. “What are we supposed to do? We’ve invested in this area and we’re stuck now with an unrestricted development.”
According to Richert, public frustration is not a new occurrence and the board has done its best to address the public’s concerns.
“[The Planning Board] is an administrative party and not a legislative party. With large developments that have the prospect of traffic and noise … there’s almost always a concern,” Richert said. “We are limited to reviewing standards.”
“The committee is aware of all these tensions,” Richert said. “I think it’s important to note that [The Avenue] project went through three preliminary meetings because of public concerns.”
Richert urges residents to get involved with the Comprehensive Plan Committee either by joining or attending the forums. Comprehensive Plan meetings occur on the first Thursday of every month at the Orono Municipal Building Council Chamber.
“There will be lots of opportunity hopefully for people to weigh in,” Richert said.