The hunt for lots where students at the Westbrook Regional Vocational Center can build houses is not as easy as it once was.

“It’s getting harder and harder to find lots to build on,” said Michael Kane, a member of the Westbrook-Gorham Rotary Club, which sponsors the program that so far has allowed building trades students to build more than 40 homes in the city.

The program, which has been around for 50 years, is one of the oldest of its kind in the country and still one of just a few in the state where students build on site, according to Kane. Seven homes along Stroudwater Street were among the most recent to be built and sold as a result of the program.

As students in the program are finishing up their year of work at a new home on Everett Street, the Rotary Club has been searching for new sites where homes could be built.

Though there’s still another year left before the next home is started, Kane said he expected that the process of finding new plots of land would take some time.

The club found six lots at the end of Dale Avenue owned by the city, where the club has proposed building four homes. Because of their proximity to vocational school, Kane said, the lots would be perfect for the program. However, several factors are complicating the plan.

The lots are located in a wooded area beyond where the street ends, meaning both the roadway and utilities would have to be extended. According to Kane, that work would cost about $200,000 alone, eating up the money the club normally uses to purchase the property.

Previously, the city has sold property to the club at a discounted price. The club plans to come to the City Council this month to ask for the land to be donated, but club members won’t be at the meeting alone.

Neighbors on and around Dale Avenue spoke up at a Planning Board meeting last week, saying they enjoy the wooded area around their homes, access to the Oxford & Cumberland Canal and the trail that runs through the proposed development.

“There’s a lot of foot traffic and bike traffic. It’s a wonderful recreation trail,” said David Tapley, who lives on Dale Avenue and uses the trail every day off he gets from work.

Tapley, who is also a member of the city’s Recreation and Conservation Commission and Recreation, Parks and Open Space Committee, said the trail links to the Portland Trails system and is considered valuable as part as the city’s broader open space plan, which puts an emphasis on connectivity.

“They’re just trying to facilitate some building and not looking at the bigger picture,” he said.

According to Tapley, being short-sighted is typical of Westbrook – and the reason he got involved in the two committees.

However, City Councilor Drew Gattine said this week he’s not convinced that selling those plots to the Rotary Club is the best bet for the city, either – mostly, he said, because he didn’t even know a plan was in the works.

“I was a bit concerned when I saw this had moved as far as it had moved along,” said Gattine, who became aware of the plan to build on the lots as he watched the Planning Board meeting on TV from his home last week.

The project came to the Planning Board for approval to extend Dale Avenue and build on the lots. The board tabled the item in order to explore the acquisition of an easement from the city in order to protect the trail.

However, the program is still planning on relying on the council’s decision to donate the land – something Gattine said he hasn’t even heard about.

“There’s been no decision and no real discussion that the council’s been involved in,” Gattine said.

Further complicating the matter, the lots are so-called substandard lots of record, which means they are smaller than what is currently considered buildable under city ordinance, but because they were subdivided before the latest standards were put in place, they can still be built upon.

The City Council is considering an amendment to an ordinance that would remove the ability to build on those lots at all. According to Gattine, to start deliberating about giving the land to the school before a decision about whether those lots can be built on “sends a strange message.”

On the whole, Tapley and Gattine said they support the program and hope the school can find sites in time for the next house to be built in September 2009. However, the Dale Avenue lots may not be the right ones.

“It’s a fantastic project in this community,” said Gattine, but, he added, “there are a lot of things at play, and we need to get in a room and talk about it.”

Chris Jensen, working with his Westbrook Regional Vocational Center classmates, raises a ladder to a house that they are building on Everett Street Tuesday. The Westbrook-Gorham Rotary Club sponsors the program, which needs new lots in the city to continue.

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