A draft rendering of the proposed York Judicial Center in Biddeford. Image courtesy of Finegold Alexander Architects

Despite continuing opposition from neighbors, the Biddeford City Council has given initial approval for a contract zone that would allow a new consolidated York County courthouse to be built in the city.

A contract zone is needed for the $65 million project because the building will be nearly twice the maximum height allowed in that area of Route 1. The project is the latest step in the state’s long-term plan to consolidate and modernize courthouses. Court officials say the consolidation in York County will help avoid backlogs, improve security and provide technology needed to efficiently handle cases.

But neighbors have opposed the courthouse and asked for an independent review of the project. They say the 115,000-square-foot building does not fit the character of the neighborhood and have raised concerns about the size, placement of parking lots, light pollution and stormwater runoff.

The state selected a vacant lot on Route 1 south of downtown – known locally as the Pate property – for the project four years ago and Biddeford officials have been reviewing plans over the past year.

The city purchased the lot in 2014 for $650,000 with plans to use it to access other parcels of city-owned land. The city sold the property to the Maine Governmental Facility Authority in 2017 for $810,000. Biddeford officials have welcomed the idea of a new courthouse in the city.

At roughly 68 feet high, it would be nearly double the maximum height of 35 feet allowed in that zone. Four courts currently spread across the county will be consolidated in the new courthouse.

The City Council last year voted 7-1 to endorse the contract zone and send the project to the planning board for review. If the project is approved, construction is expected to begin this year and the courthouse would open in 2022.

During a virtual meeting Tuesday, the City Council voted 5-4 in favor of the contract zone. Councilors Doris Ortiz, Robert Quattrone, Norman Belanger and Amy Clearwater voted against. A second vote is required.

Belanger proposed tabling the vote to allow more time to review the project and explore a third-party review, but that motion failed. Clearwater said that while she broadly supports the project, she has concerns about the impact it will have on the neighborhood behind it.

Märgen Soliman, who lives next to the Pate property, was one of four neighbors who spoke against the contract zone during the meeting and called for an independent review of the project. Neighbors continue to be concerned the building will change the character of the area and by a lack of communication with the state about the project, she said.

“The city needs to do its due diligence to make sure the project is best suited for the neighborhood,” she said.

The Biddeford Conservation Commission has also raised concerns about the impact the project will have on the Thatcher Brook watershed.

Claire Colburn, the project manager with Finegold Alexander Architects, said changes have been made to respond to neighbors’ concerns, including increasing the length of the privacy fence on two sides of the property and adjusting the stormwater management plan.

“We have been responding and making changes to respond to the neighbors as much as possible,” she said.


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