Westbrook residents who turned out in droves for public meetings this week expressed a common theme. What can city officials do to slow the pace of development in the city?

And they may get some answers. Due to the passionate public pushback during the recent period of unprecendented growth in Westbrook, officials will host a joint workshop Monday, Aug. 22, for the City Council, School Committee and Planning Board to discuss the boom.

The unrelenting outcry was sparked largely as a result of the Blue Spruce Farm subdivision on Spring Street, with developers Risbara Bros. now planning a Phase 2, with 303 units of mostly market-rate apartments. A just-announced proposal for 96 condo units on rural Austin Street has added fuel to the fire.

The response from residents and officials to the rapid development is converging on several fronts:

  • Neighbors opposed to the Blue Spruce Farm expansion and Austin Street project are calling for a building moratorium and changes to the city’s comprehensive plan.
  • The Westbrook School Department is preparing to unveil its expansion project for both Saccarappa Elementary School and Westbrook Middle School, which could cost some $25 million.
  • Population studies done by Portland company Planning Decisions for both developers and the city are playing a growing role in how decisions are formed.
  • The Westbrook City Council will begin looking at measures such as impact fees.

The Westbrook Planning Board meeting on Tuesday, with discussions on both Blue Spruce Farm and the Austin Street project on the agenda, lasted until just after midnight and was standing-room-only.

Concern about the impact of all the development – on schools, on infrastructure, on traffic and more – which some residents say the city is not prepared for, has produced multiple calls for a moratorium until officials can relook at the city’s comprehensive plan. It has also spurred discussion on the possible use of impact fees, which are used to offset the cost of infrastructure expansions of schools and sewers.

“I feel like we’re sort of shooting in the dark,” said resident Flynn Ross about the city’s response to development.

Ross has been an outspoken critic of Blue Spruce Farm, and has organized information concerning the development for a group of neighbors. She went door to door ahead of this week’s meetings and insisted the Planning Board put a list of conditions on the project.

Ben Waxman, who is relatively new to Westbrook, echoed a question that is often repeated by residents: Who makes the final decision on the development proposals?

Planning Board Chairman Ed Reidman said during the meeting that it is the board’s responsibility to make sure any development adheres to the city’s zoning ordinances.

“If they comply, they expect to be approved,” he said of developers.

That answer is causing residents, and now some officials, to wonder what else can be done.

Mayor Colleen Hilton said in an email Wednesday that she’s hoping the Aug. 22 workshop can provide some answers.

“Many suggestions have been directed to elected officials, like building moratoriums, school impact, traffic impact, impact fees and others,” she said. “My hope is that we will all be educated on what those mean, how they are accomplished, if they can be done and to offer a forum where people can get information from our planners and other experts in these matters so that we can make informed choices.”

She also said she hopes to hear diverse opinions on development.

“Despite the challenges, there are also some real benefits from ongoing economic development for the city of Westbrook,” she said.

The workshop is expected to be held at the Westbrook Performing Arts Center.

Well into the night Tuesday at the Planning Board meeting, residents attempted to restrain emotion while reiterating concern for the impact on Westbrook’s schools, which are at capacity.

Just a few hundred yards away Tuesday night, school officials and the school building committee were in their own workshop focusing on the expansion of Saccarappa Elementary School and Westbrook Middle School that they are hoping will appear on the November ballot.

According to School Committee Chairman Jim Violette, the committee will hold a workshop with the City Council on Monday, Aug. 8, to discuss the project. As of now, cost estimates for renovating and expanding Saccarappa Elementary School are in the range of $23 million.

Violette said that as a result of a citywide population study, the board will look at adding 12 classrooms at the middle school, instead of the six originally proposed. He said the additional classrooms at both schools would handle the current population, account for the predicted growth and rid the district of portables. The district lines would most likely be redrawn to alleviate class sizes at Congin and Canal schools.

That proposed growth took school officials by surprise when the Planning Decisions study was finished last week. The company used two models to project student growth over the next ten years. The “Best Fit” model, using birth trends, predicts growth of 155 students by 2025, while a model looking at current development proposals and land sales citywide predicts an additional 331 students by 2025.

Violette said he and the committee are well aware of the public concern for current development.

“Overcrowding is an issue, and we’re trying to deal with it with this expansion project,” he said. “But the bottom line is, do we continue to allow all of this residential development?”

He said there has been routine communication between the committee and city officials. City Councilor Anna Turcotte, who has two children in the school system, is also a member of the school’s building committee.

Planning Decisions’ “New Housing Model” study also predicts the most growth at the middle school. A study done for Risbara Bros. by the same company, which looked only at the student projections at Phase 2 of Blue Spruce Farm, predicts a range of 9-23 students, based mostly on the number of one- and- two-bedroom apartments involved.

Planning Board alternate member John Turcotte said he found the numbers difficult to believe, and that his concern for the project is due to the school situation.

“We’re already behind the curve,” he said, referring to the school system.

He also echoed a commentor who said the infrastructure needs to be in place before the development comes.

Neighbors of the proposed Blue Spruce Farm expansion have continued to stress the impact that 20, 12-unit apartment buildings would have on the neighborhood. The development also calls for an extention of Prospect Street, which would connect the new neighborhood to Westbrook Pointe, another large apartment complex.

Risbara’s new plan has included traffic-calming measures such as raised speed tables and islands to make the street more attractive.

Joan Harmon, who is the school transportation coordinator, said Westbrook school buses pick up 129 elementary students at two stops outside Westbrook Pointe. She said she’s concerned for the safety of those students who would now be waiting for the bus at a more high-traffic area.

Planning Board members also had criticism for the proposed layout of buildings and a mixed-use commercial building slated for Phase 2.

“This does not enhance the city as a whole,” member Rebecca Dillion said.

Sarah McNally, a resident of Blue Spruce Farm Phase 1, said she and her husband bought a home there looking for a quiet area, but after seeing the Phase 2 proposal, they are thinking of selling right away.

“We’re not sure yet,” she said.

At a City Council meeting Monday, where many of the same residents used the public comment period to discuss Blue Spruce Farm, referrals were made to council subcommittees to study impact fees and large-scale development.

However, council President Brendan Rielly made sure the public understood that “any changes we make are only going forward.”

Large land parcels, such as Twin Falls Golf Course on Spring Street and the former Snyder property on Stroudwater Street, are owned by developers, but no proposals have come forward.

A Westbrook Planning Board meeting went until just after midnight Tuesday, with workshops on proposed developments causing a constant stream of resident concerns.

This image by architect Harriman Associates depicts one of the potential designs for the renovation and expansion of Saccarappa Elementary School. As proposed, the project adding 12 classrooms, a gym, library and more, could cost about $23 million.

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