Midcoast Habitat for Humanity has proposed a subdivision for Talbot Avenue in Rockland. Credit: Lauren Abbate / BDN

Rockland city councilors have given initial approval to a zoning change necessary for a Midcoast Habitat for Humanity housing development project to move forward. But a group of neighbors worries the development would have adverse effects on stormwater runoff in the neighborhood.

The development project, slated for a 10-acre parcel on Talbot Avenue, would bring more than a dozen housing units to the city with a combination of single family homes and duplexes.

The proposal is a collaboration between MaineHousing, Midcoast Habitat for Humanity and the Knox County Homeless Coalition. It’s intended to create more affordable housing units in the region, where prices have steadily risen beyond affordability for a majority of residents.

Approval of the zoning change, which would reduce the minimum square footage requirement for buildings on the lot, is the first hurdle the project needs to overcome. City councilors will vote on giving final approval to the change after a public hearing on June 14. The project will then go before the planning board for a review process and approval.

City councilors agreed with Talbot Avenue area residents that there are existing stormwater drainage issues in the area — and across the city as a whole — which are creating flooding and erosion problems, especially around Lindsey Brook. But several councilors suggested that careful development can mitigate these problems.

“Does Lindsey Brook need to be managed and reinforced in a myriad of places? Yes, it does. Do we also need to actively address the underserved population in our community that can’t find a place to live? Yes, we do,” city councilor Ben Dorr said. “Those two things don’t need to be mutually exclusive. I think there is a way to actively work on both of those issues at the same time.”

Midcoast Habitat for Humanity formally submitted its proposal to the city last year after purchasing the land for $200,000. The site could feature eight approximately 500-square-foot one-bedroom homes, three duplexes with a two-bedroom unit on one side and a three-bedroom unit on the other. Both the small homes and duplexes would be rental units managed by the Knox County Homeless Coalition.

The proposal also calls for four single-family homes which would be sold to qualifying Habitat for Humanity applicants.

If approved, this would be the second subdivision development that Habitat for Humanity is taking on in Rockland. The organization is currently in the construction phase of a 12-home development on Philbrick Avenue in Rockland.

Rockland, like many midcoast communities, has struggled to remain affordable. Median home prices in Knox County are about $30,000 more than the average homebuyer can easily afford, according to MaineHousing data from 2019. In Rockland alone, 52 percent of residents can’t afford the median home price.

While neighbors of the Talbot Avenue project say they agree that there needs to be more affordable housing in the city, they don’t feel the proposed location is an appropriate spot given existing stormwater runoff problems that have created erosion and flooding issues around the area of Lindsey Brook.

By adding a development to the currently uninhabited lot, neighbors say stormwater runoff issues downstream will be worsened because there are less surfaces for rainwater to be absorbed into.

“I don’t think we can handle [stormwater] runoff as it is right now, the idea that we’re going to add to the crisis to me is highly problematic,” Talbot Avenue resident Andrew Wisch said. “There have been some questions regarding those of us who have concerns around the project having a [not in my backyard] attitude around this, that we don’t want this housing development in our backyard […] Frankly, I’m most concerned about being able to preserve our backyards at all”.

Habitat is working to address these concerns, according to the project’s engineer Michael Sabatini, by reducing setbacks to keep the homes farther away from neighbors as well as including a stormwater management plan for the site.

“We understand the concerns we are hearing and we plan on addressing these concerns during the planning board process which I think is the more appropriate place to discuss stormwater, buffers and the like,” Sabatini said.