SCARBOROUGH – Scarborough officials say that “within a month” the Town Council will take up zoning changes that could lead to development of a genuine downtown district for the sprawling suburb.

As envisioned, the new rules would transform the 480-acre Scarborough Downs property into the “Crossroads District,” where developers could create as many as 40 housing units per acre in buildings up to six stories high.

While the proposal was drawn up independently by the town and not at the request of Scarborough Downs, the boundary of the new crossroads district exactly traces its property line. The zoning change is meant to enhance the town, rather than benefit a single business, planners say. Still, many openly question how long the harness racing complex can survive without grasping on to what the new rules promise.

The town’s long-range planning committee has spent more than six months crafting a nine-page zoning amendment, meeting with representatives of the racetrack twice in public and twice privately in neighborhood meetings with abutting property owners. On Monday, the committee held a workshop with the Planning Board to review the status of the proposal, which would call on board members to review any crossroads district project under rules adopted in 2007 for so-called planned development.

According to Town Planner Dan Bacon, those standards spun out of Scarborough’s experience with the Gallery Boulevard and Gateway Shops developments. The new process is automatic for developments larger than 5 acres, or for ones including gas stations and restaurant drive-throughs.

The Planning Board has dealt with a few planned developments in recent years. On Monday, for example, it began to process an application for a new Biddeford Savings Bank branch on Route 1 near the Cheese Iron, to include an adjacent small restaurant for an as-yet-unnamed tenant.

However, few planned developments to date have allowed the board to really spread its wings, so to speak, on site analysis and “master planning,” which the crossroads district promises, given its size.

“It’s not likely that we are going to see 25 percent of this site coming through to us at any one time,” said Planning Board Chairman Allen Paul. “We may not ever see anything that big. So, understanding the full vision, how we handle infrastructure and traffic, are paramount.”

Still, Bacon noted, what makes a planned development attractive to the property owner is the trade off that comes with submitting their projects to a wider-than-usual review.

“Applicants get a lot of flexibility for development, particularly on space and bulk standards and setbacks, which provides a lot of opportunity to think outside the box,” said Bacon. “The tradeoff is that the Planning Board and the public has more say in the design, more leverage in ensuring that it fits with the site and works for the town.”

“Our job isn’t really to express our opinion on a particular project, it’s to determine whether the ordinances are being followed,” said Paul. “However, one of the few occasions where our opinions do come into play is in the master planning process.

“Our ability to inject our input there is needed. That’s our opportunity to have our personal opinions come into play,” said Paul.

“And I intend to seize that opportunity,” said Planning Board member Ron Mazer.

In addition to allowing residential development on the Downs property, the new crossroad zone would permit a wider array of commercial uses, such as assisted living centers and “small-scale energy facilities,” than are currently available. The new Crossroads zone would continue to allow harness racing and associated betting, though not other forms of gambling.

“I think their broker is very excited about this proposal,” said Bacon, “but the Downs folks have been very up front with us that while they are supportive of this action, they are not abandoning other options.”

Those other options still center on getting voter permission for slot machines and other forms of gambling to support harness racing activities. Still, planners say, the crossroads project could be an alternative that allows the Downs to sell off or develop part of its “massive” property in the center of town, between the major Route 1 and Interstate 95 corridors, while hanging on to enough to keep racing.

“There are other things that they can do with parts of that parcel that would reap the benefits that they’ve been looking for in order to retain the dream,” said Councilor Judy Roy. “I think our recent talks are the most positive I’ve seen them in 15 years.”

“Worst case scenario, we say no to everything in this proposal, are they going to be able to keep that track open?” asked Maser.

“No,” said Roy.

“I don’t believe it for one second,” agreed Maser.

Still, despite the seeming importance to the Downs, long-range planning committee member Rick Shinay said that “there is no development proposed on that property right now as far as any of us know.”

“They didn’t come to us and say we have some ideas and we need to work on the zoning,” said Shinay. “It really was the other way around. But the Downs representatives have been very cooperative in the process.”

The Crossroads development rules are based on ideas first built into the town’s 2006 comprehensive plan. That document saw in the Downs property something Scarborough sorely misses. Despite being cut in three parts on parallel paths by Route 1 and Interstate 95, the town has no genuine Main Street, at least not in the New England sense of a village center.

The Crossroads plan hopes to remedy that.

“Redevelopment of the Scarborough Downs property along with development of adjacent land results in a vibrant, mixed-use center for the community,” reads the plan, envisioning a “concentrated and dense neighborhood” surrounded by a mix of small businesses and neighborhoods “in a loose grid pattern” extending to Sawyer Street.

According Shinay, the new proposals are an attempt to bridge the gap between what exists at the racetrack site today and what the comprehensive plan expects.

“We thought if we don’t try to implement some zoning to react to how development might go there, we’d lose control,” he has said.

As a sign of how easy it can be to lose that control, attendees at Monday’s meeting quickly got diverted into questions of how much planning the town could require of the Downs before it began developing or selling off slices of the property, along with how roads, sewer lines and other infrastructure needs might take shape if lots are built out in anything other than an ordered sequence.

“That’s exactly why we don’t want this to go piecemeal without a master plan,” said Paul, breaking into the debate. “You’ve got right dead nuts into the middle of the issue.”

Representatives for the Downs could not be reached Tuesday. However, Ed MacColl, attorney and spokesman for its owner, Sharon Terry, has said it’s unlikely his boss will try and plant private homes around the harness racing site.

“I haven’t heard Sharon say she wants to be a real estate developer,” said MacColl.

Much of the property surrounding Scarborough Downs has been up for sale since November 2011, when the track lost a third attempt to secure voter approval for expanded gambling at the site. MacColl says even though the zoning changes might make the land more attractive to potential buyers, it may not be enough to stem the slow, decades-long decline of harness racing, reported by some sources to be off more than 45 percent since 2003.

Scarborough Downs only uses about 100 acres of its lot, but could make do with as little as 35, said MacColl.

“Selling some land will cover your loses for a while, but eventually the business needs to make sense,” he said. “Planning is great, but the first bit of brick and mortar requires somebody’s money and frankly, those ‘soft costs’ are ridiculously expensive. Once you start talking lawyers and engineers, you start to spend money faster than you can imagine. It’s just scary.”

Those costs, said MacColl, are why Scarborough Downs remains married to the idea of casino gambling as its means of survival, despite repeated beatings on the subject in the ballot booth.

“In terms of harness racing’s survival, whether it’s here or at a relocated track, in the long run there will need to be gaming,” he said. “Selling some land will cover your loses for a while, but eventually the business needs to make sense. None of this would happen fast and, in terms of it helping the harness racing industry, I think we’ve got to do something within the next year, or few years, or they’ll be just crushed.”

Scarborough Planning Board member Ron Mazer, foreground, makes a point Monday during a joint meeting of his group and the town’s Long-Range Planning Committee, called to review proposed zoning changes aimed at directing development of the 480-acre Scarborough Downs property.    

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