WELLS — Selectmen temporarily shut the gate Wednesday on new hotel projects to give town officials time to develop a plan for growth.

Wells, a popular beach town whose population quadruples in the summer, has had “tremendous” hotel development along Route 1 in the past decade, creating a need to step back and reassess future growth, said Robert Foley, the board’s chairman.

The board voted to push back the start of the moratorium to allow one proposed hotel project time to present an application to the Planning Board. The plan, for six lodging units, will be exempt from the moratorium if the board deems the application has substantial review.

During the moratorium, a committee will develop recommended changes that will go before voters in November. The moratorium applies to all lodging units within 1,000 feet of Route 1.

In the past 10 years, Wells has approved plans for 1,017 new lodging units, including 792 seasonal cottages. By the time all of those approved units are built, the town will have about 3,095 lodging units, according to town officials.

This year the town will issue 2,653 lodging licenses. The year-round population of Wells is just shy of 10,000, but swells to as much as 45,000 during the peak of the summer tourist season. 

“We need to adequately prepare this town for the number of people it can handle,” Foley said, citing concerns about traffic congestion on Route 1 and overloaded beaches. “Are we going to outlaw motels? No.”

Don Grenier, president of DEC Construction Inc., said he stood to lose the $35,000 he’s invested in the his six-unit hotel project if selectmen didn’t push back the moratorium’s start date to April 16. He will present plans for his project, Buffum Hill Hotel, at two Planning Board meetings in April. 

“I don’t have a problem with this moratorium. I do have a problem with being a victim of it,” Grenier said during the meeting. After the vote, he said he was thankful the board changed the start date.  

During the public hearing, which drew only a handful of residents, no one spoke against the moratorium.

Larry Duell, a Wells resident and president of the Maine Homebuilders and Remodelers Association, said he is pro-growth but supports the moratorium because of concerns about quality of life.

“The people who really suffer are the residents. The traffic takes away from the quality of life,” he said.

Peter Moody, a longtime resident, took issue with the villages of seasonal cottages that have popped up along Route 1 over the past decade. Built as hotel units, they are then sold as three-season condos.

“I’ve never seen a hotel with 200 owners,” Moody said. “They’re labeled wrong. They’re not a hotel or motel.”

Moody said the development of the cottages has resulted in hotels with vacancy signs during summer for the first time in years.

“We may be more saturated than we think we are,” he said.

Selectman Karl Ekstedt said Wells must take a step back from approving new lodging units to consider their effect.

“The moratorium is the tip of the iceberg of the issues that need to be addressed,” he said. “I don’t think we have a choice but to take this stuff on.”

 

Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at:

ggraham@pressherald.com