WESTBROOK — City officials came one step closer Monday night to acting on a six-month moratorium on residential building permits, a move that could block a large apartment complex and other housing projects in Westbrook.

The City Council will vote on the moratorium at its Oct. 3 meeting.

“That evening, the council can vote it up, vote it down,” at-large Councilor John O’Hara said. “It’s a time for the petitioners to look at where they stand, what is their ultimate goal.”

Amid a housing boom in Westbrook, more than 400 people have signed a petition calling for a 180-day moratorium on building permits for subdivisions greater than 10 units. They have expressed concern about the stress an influx of new residents could create for schools and other infrastructure. Circulated by a group called Westbrook Forward, the petition specifically asks for Westbrook to revamp the city’s land use ordinance, increase the minimum lot size for new homes and enact a process for collecting impact fees from developers.

The City Council heard presentations Monday night from an attorney on the proposed moratorium, and from an economic development consultant on impact fees. Of the 15 or so members of the public who attended the meeting, only one – Chris LaRoche, executive director of the Westbrook Housing Authority – spoke against the idea of a moratorium, which he worried could derail a planned senior housing project. Seven individuals asked the council to adopt impact fees, a moratorium or both.

“I would like to see more measured growth,” Cole Street resident Kathleen O’Neill-Lussier said. “I don’t like the huge developments at a time when the schools are already overcrowded.”

Between January 2015 and July of this year, Westbrook issued building permits for 370 new units of housing. Much of that was attributed to nearly 200 apartments and single-family homes currently under construction at Blue Spruce Farm on Spring Street. Other pending projects have shrunk or slowed.

Developer Risbara Bros. originally hoped to expand the Blue Spruce Farm project by nearly 300 units, mostly apartments, but a legal dispute with the landowner has downsized the project. New plans submitted to the city last week show slightly more than 100 apartments. The project will likely go before the Westbrook Planning Board in October.

Across town, a company this year proposed 96 condominiums on Austin Street but has not returned to the Planning Board with updated plans.

The council was split on the idea of a moratorium, which would affect any projects that have not gone through substantive Planning Board review. Ward 5 Councilor Mike Sanphy called it “a useful tool.” Ward 2 Councilor Victor Chau said he wanted to “see what these developments are doing to our services.”

“We need to take a step back and figure out what we are doing with future land,” O’Hara said. “Are we just letting people plot houses anywhere?”

Mayor Colleen Hilton, however, spoke against the idea of a moratorium, and she cautioned the council against enacting a moratorium during a six-month period that is busy with holidays and elections.

“I do think a moratorium sends the wrong message,” Hilton said. “I think we can accomplish a lot of what this group is asking us to do with our existing processes.”

Rocco Risbara, president of Risbara Bros., asked the City Council and residents to remember the years Westbrook spent writing its comprehensive plan and code of ordinances. Departing abruptly from those policies would be “highly unfair,” he said.

“You would probably kill the next phase of my project. … You would have a lot of unintended consequences,” Risbara said.

The council was more united on the idea of impact fees as a possibility for Westbrook.

Municipalities can charge impact fees when a development will require new capacity in infrastructure – such as schools, roads and sewer systems. Such fees are already used in a number of Maine communities, including Scarborough and Windham. The charges must be set out in the code of ordinances, and they must be directly proportional to the costs stemming from a development’s impact.

“It must be reasonably related to the development’s share of the cost of the infrastructure,” said James Damicis of Camoin & Associates. “You must reasonably connect the dots.”

Impact fees can help a city squirrel money away for future capital improvements, but Damicis cautioned that they can also deter builders and buyers.

“If your goal is to slow growth and development, then maybe you want to do that,” he said. “But if you’re not, be careful of the fee and how high you want to set it. It may make a difference.”

City Administrator Jerre Bryant said it is unclear how much it would cost Westbrook to implement and administer impact fees – or where the money would come from to do that. City staff will next explore those details and report back.

“As a taxpayer, I don’t want to carry all of the burden that this development is going to have on our city,” Lunt Drive resident Melissa Morrill said.

The City Council will meet Oct. 3 at 7 p.m. in Room 114 of Westbrook High School.

Megan Doyle can be contacted at 791-6327 or at

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Twitter: megan_e_doyle