WESTBROOK – The developer of the 60-acre Stroudwater Street parcel in Westbrook will move ahead slowly with plans for the property, following a vote Tuesday to reject a citizen-initiated referendum that would have returned the land to a contract zone and likely sparked a legal battle.

Westbrook residents voted 1,110-702 Tuesday to deny the effort that sought to rezone the parcel between Stroudwater Street and the Westbrook Arterial, land that has long been home to grazing cows from the neighboring Randall farm.

Voters also approved a nearly $9 million bond for the construction of a consolidated public services and fleet maintenance facility, 1,082-741, and validated the $34.8 million fiscal year 2014-15 school budget, 1,289-524.

The no vote maintains the land’s current zoning of Residential Growth Area and Gateway Commercial District, which was sought by Portland developer J.B. Brown & Sons in January prior to its purchase of the property for some $2 million.

Vin Veroneau, J.B. Brown president & CEO, said Wednesday that the company is pleased that Westbrook voters supported the recent rezone of the property. However, Veroneau said he doesn’t feel that the project would be significantly further along if the plan had not been hindered by the referendum.

“This was more of a nuisance than a showstopper,” he said, adding that the first order of business will be gaining state approval for road access off the Westbrook Arterial.

While Veroneau said the company is moving forward, it will be a slow and careful process.

“I honestly don’t think that you’d see us back in front of the Planning Board within the next year,” he said. “What we really want to do is put the property in a position so that it is developable.”

Veroneau said he hopes “the zoning issues are behind us and we can look forward to doing something with the property over the next few years.”

Westbrook resident Jason Snyder, the former owner of the property, orchestrated the petition in February and collected the necessary signatures to put the question on Tuesday’s ballot. Snyder’s goal was to reinstate the former “Stroudwater Place” contract zone, an ambitious development that he has argued represents a “higher standard” of development for the city’s gateway.

The project failed to get off the ground in the years following the contract zone implementation, and the land was sold back to mortgage lender Kimco Capital in foreclosure last year, prior to J.B. Brown’s purchase.

Attorneys representing both the city of Westbrook and J.B. Brown believed the referendum question was probably illegal, as it could have forced a specific contract zone on an unwilling property owner. Yet because the petition gathered the necessary 1,216 votes, the Westbrook City Council largely felt required to send the question to voters.

Snyder said Wednesday that the results of the referendum were ultimately decided by poor voter turnout, which, he said, was a concern from the start of the campaign. Even if voters had approved the question Tuesday, a citizen-initiated referendum in Westbrook requires 30 percent, or 2,053 registered votes, in order to be valid. The total vote count on the issue Tuesday was 1,812.

“When you have that low of a turnout, whatever result you have is not necessarily a clear indication of how the community feels about a particular issue, whether it’s land use or anything else,” he said. “Even if we had won by a wide margin, it still wouldn’t have taken effect, because the turnout was so low.”

City Clerk Lynda Adams said Wednesday that for a June election, which normally has a light turnout, she heard from all wards that they were surprised with the steady flow of voters, including unenrolled voters.

“I think a lot of people came out for the local issues,” she said.

J.B. Brown plans two separate developments for the property, with 18 housing lots off Stroudwater Street and mixed commercial development off the Westbrook Arterial. Veroneau said Wednesday that following state approval for road access, the next step would be securing the necessary utility access.

“All that stuff takes time, so until you know you have it, it’s tough to know exactly what you’re going to do with the property,” he said.

Snyder has said that Stroudwater Place, with community amenities such as a winter garden and ice rink, was a higher quality development. In some last-minute campaigning Monday, he distributed flyers that stated, “We believe it is better to see the land remain in its current state – beautiful pasture – than to see it littered with housing. Westbrook needs a better kind of development that will create real jobs.”

J.B. Brown has argued that Snyder’s contract zone would be unfeasible because a recent study found 15 acres of wetlands on the parcel.

Snyder added Wednesday that he believes another culprit was the wording of the question on the ballot, and in particular a statement presented by city officials that explained its potential legal implications.

“I feel that people were turned off by the city description, casting the issue as an illegal measure,” he said, adding that there was never a legal decision made on the matter, only opinion. “If you get into the voting booth and see that, it would scare the pants off anybody to say, ‘If I vote yes, it’s an illegal vote, so I have to vote no.’”

Former Mayor Ken Lefebvre, voting at the Westbrook Armory on Stroudwater Street, said Tuesday that the City Council “had no choice” but to send the question to voters, because there is nothing that has officially decided the legality of the issue.

“It really is a tough question,” he said. “I really see both sides of it.”

After casting his ballot at the armory, resident Joe Gousse, son of Superintendent of Schools Marc Gousse, said the question could have been worded better.

“It’s not very clearly written,” he said. “If you’re trying to do the will of the people, and people are having a hard time voting, where’s the intent? I’m a law student and I had to read it a couple times.”

Beverly O’Gara, warden of Ward 2, said Tuesday that turnout had been pretty steady, and that she hadn’t fielded any questions concerning the contract zone vote.

With the consolidated public services and fleet maintenance plan now approved, Public Services Deputy Director Arty Ledoux said Wednesday that the next step is working toward a site plan and preparing to go before the Planning Board, while simultaneously acquiring the necessary state permits for the site on Saco Street.

In the only state primary race decided by Westbrook residents, the House District 35 Democratic race went to Dillon Bates, who beat Westbrook School Committee member Suzanne Salisbury, 325-208.


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