Westbrook will not charge fees based on a development’s impacts to the school and sewer system.

The decision is a reversal from last fall, when the Westbrook City Council expressed interest in the idea and planned to charge impact fees on all building projects with permits issued since Oct. 3.

The fees were popular among residents and officials concerned about the pace of growth in the city at a time when hundreds of housing units were proposed for Westbrook.

City staff spent months developing the formulas for the fees, which are designed to pay for new capacity needed as a result of a development. Under the system proposed, for example, the owner of a new three-bedroom house would need to pay a $3,245 school impact fee to offset the future costs of adding children to local classrooms.

But when the final proposals for those fees came before the City Council last week, the group rejected them. A majority of councilors said they were worried the fees would discourage families and businesses from moving to Westbrook.

“I think we’re making a serious mistake if we go any further with this,” Councilor Ann Peoples said.

Impact fees exist in varying forms in other communities, like Scarborough, Gorham and South Portland. Supporters who have spent the last year advocating for the fees and other changes related to residential development were disappointed in the council’s decision.

“I thought impact fees were a no brainer,” said Westbrook resident Flynn Ross, one of those supporters. “Communities all around us are doing it. There’s clearly infrastructure needs as a result of significant development, and now all of Westbrook’s taxpayers are going to have to absorb those infrastructure costs.”

MORATORIUM FAILS TO PASS

Last August, more than 400 residents signed a petition calling for a six-month moratorium on residential construction and a review of Westbrook’s land use ordinances.

They were worried the city couldn’t meet the needs of new housing developments. The largest was a sprawling subdivision on Spring Street called Blue Spruce Farm – nearly 200 single-family homes, condos and market-rate apartments. The neighborhood’s developer, Risbara Bros., wanted to build an expansion with more than 300 additional units. Another developer had proposed 96 new apartments across town. A few other projects were going up elsewhere in Westbrook – seven condos here, 20 duplexes there.

Not all those projects came to fruition as planned. For example, a legal dispute forced Risbara to scale back his project, which was ultimately approved as 110 apartments. But for months, residents spoke at meetings about the strain these housing projects would put on public schools and other infrastructure.

The City Council ultimately decided against the moratorium. But last fall, the group voted to study impact fees and proposed an effective date of Oct. 3. That meant any project with a building permit pulled after that date would be subject to those fees, including any expansion at Blue Spruce Farm.

The moratorium’s supporters considered that a victory, especially because the city did not pursue other changes to density and minimum lot size.

But now the effort to establish impact fees has failed as well.

“A lot of people are feeling pretty alienated that the system doesn’t work and doesn’t listen to us,” Ross said.

‘IT WAS A BIG SCARE FOR US’

Developers opposed impact fees from the beginning.

They have repeatedly cautioned the City Council that impact fees in Westbrook would send builders to other communities instead, and several people repeated those concerns at last week’s meeting.

David Elowitch, who helped redevelop the Maine Rubber Co. site and owns the neighboring building where Mast Landing Brewery operates, said impact fees would send Westbrook in “the wrong direction.”

“There are plenty of other communities businesses and developers can go to and bring their business to, and they’ll just avoid Westbrook,” Elowitch said.

The possibility of sewer impact fees drew concern from Mast Landing and Yes Brewing, which have both opened in Westbrook in the last two years. A brewery would pay a one-time sewer impact fee based on daily usage; for example, a brewery using 40,000 gallons a day like Sebago Brewing Co. in Gorham would pay nearly $190,000.

“It was a big of a scare for us,” said John Bigelow, one of the owners of Yes Brewing.

City Planner Jennie Franceschi said more than 60 homeowners would be subject to the proposed fees. While the city warned contractors about the potential impact fees, Franceschi said not all their buyers were aware of them.

“We will see a significant number of single-family homeowners who will be getting a bill that they were not anticipating at the time they purchased their homes,” Franceschi said.

Five people spoke at last week’s meeting, and four encouraged the council to abandon the impact fees.

“We’re going to quash everything that’s happening in our city,” said Deb Shangraw, president of the Downtown Westbrook Coalition. “We’re going to stop all growth.”

‘ANTE UP LIKE THE REST OF US HAVE”

The City Council did approve a general ordinance change that would allow Westbrook to charge impact fees in the future. That ordinance is scheduled for a public hearing and a final vote Aug. 21. The ordinances for sewer and school impact fees will not move forward, however.

Not all members were opposed to the fees.

Council President Brendan Reilly attempted to refer the ordinances back to the planning board for further review, saying the fees were too high. But the other councilors did not support that idea.

The ordinance to charge school impact fees failed 5-2; the yes votes were Councilors Victor Chau and Gary Rairdon. The ordinance to establish sewer impact fees failed by the same margin; the yes votes were Rairdon and Councilor John O’Hara.

O’Hara said developers won’t come to Westbrook if the city isn’t investing in its infrastructure, and money from impact fees is needed to do that.

“All we’re asking them to do is ante up like the rest of us have,” O’Hara said. “No one gets a free seat at the table.”

Among the detractors were the two councilors elected in November – Ann Peoples and Lynda Adams. Neither was on the City Council during the original discussion about impact fees.

“I think this is a feel-good thing for people who didn’t like some stuff that was going on at the time,” Peoples said.

Adams was among the residents who called for impact fees last fall, but she said she has changed her mind.

“I do not want to be a deterrent to people moving into the city,” she said.

Megan Doyle can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

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Twitter: megan_e_doyle