A team of local developers wants to build a traditional New England-style village with hundreds of homes, offices and retail businesses on 300 acres of rural land in western Biddeford.

The plan for South Street Village is still being developed, but Biddeford officials are considering a zoning change to allow it to move forward. The city is also stepping up efforts to improve traffic flow at the Maine Turnpike exit, which sits between the property and downtown Biddeford.

Creating a village mixed use zone would be a new approach to development for Biddeford and city officials say it would address ongoing concerns about housing stock, transportation and declining school enrollment.

“I’m picturing a neighborhood where your grandmother lives there, your parents live there, you live there and everyone is in the same neighborhood,” said Chico Potvin, a Biddeford developer with South Street Village LLC. “That’s how I grew up. You could walk to school, there was a barbershop, there was an auto repair place within one block of the school. I envision that kind of idea.”

South Street Village LLC is asking the city for a zoning change that would allow for the development of 300 acres west of the Maine Turnpike that currently is zoned for rural farmland and mobile homes. The three developers behind the South Street Village project – Potvin, Matthew Chamberlain and Paul Vose – want the zoning change so the project can include a mix of uses instead of just residential housing.

The City Council has charged the Planning Board with recommending a zoning ordinance amendment, a process that will play out over the rest of the summer. The discussions will involve the Conservation Commission, which has already raised concerns about the impact a large project could have on the threatened Thatcher Brook watershed and on the Saco River.

Mathew Eddy, the city’s director of planning and development, said the zoning change and South Street Village project present the city with the opportunity to protect natural resources by preserving a large tract of land next to the village and provide bypasses that reduce stress on Biddeford’s transportation system.

“There are a lots of opportunities to really develop a good, sound plan for this project,” he said. “Our ordinance doesn’t address this kind of approach, so we have to take a fresh look.”

City councilors expressed enthusiasm about the project, which is still in a conceptual phase, after presentations from city staff and developers about the plan. They say it could provide needed home ownership opportunities, help address transportation issues around Exit 32 and for commuters who live west of the turnpike, and help families stay in Biddeford so school enrollment doesn’t continue to decline and threaten state education subsidies.

“I think this project meets a lot of the needs of our community. … It could be a lot of wins all at once,” Councilor Amy Clearwater said at a recent council meeting.

During presentations to the Planning Board and Conservation Commissioners, the team of developers seeking the zoning change has described the type of project they envision for the property, though no formal plans have been finalized or submitted to the city for approval. The team acquired the property three years ago and anticipates the South Street Village would be built in phases over the next 10 to 20 years.

“We hope this ordinance is going to free up the way to design a neighborhood in a way that’s sensitive to the market and what people want while also being sensitive to the cultural and environmental resources,” said Mitchell Rasor, a landscape architect working with South Street Village LLC to design the project.

The proposed village mixed use zone allows for a range of compatible uses on a scale in keeping with historic Maine towns like Yarmouth, South Berwick, Cornish and Blue Hill, according to Rasor. In the village center, there may be housing above businesses, while in other areas there would be a mix of single-family, duplexes and multiplex structures with three or more units.

The zoning proposal from the developers calls for reduced lot sizes, which would allow for more than 560 units instead of 490. It would also include reduced setbacks, a maximum building footprint of 30,000 square feet and a maximum building height of 45 feet. The developers plan to include a 20-acre solar field in the project.

Potvin told the Planning Board he often builds houses in Old Orchard Beach, Hollis and other towns in the area that are bought by people moving out of Biddeford. When he asks why they’re leaving the city, they tell him they’ve outgrown their houses in Biddeford but can’t find another to move into.

Potvin, who is from Biddeford, said he wants to build a neighborhood with a variety of housing types at different “attainable” price points that will keep people in the city. He does not want to drop in “cookie cutter houses,” he told board members.

Chamberlain, another partner in South Street Village LLC, told board members he would like to see neighborhoods that are highly walkable, include amenities like dog parks that become social gathering points, and that have open space and connections to transit. The developers have discussed the project with the Maine Turnpike Authority and would like it to include a connection to the Exit 32 interchange.

Biddeford has been pushing for years for another turnpike exit or changes to the existing interchange, where traffic backs up onto the turnpike. Traffic congestion around Exit 32 and in the city has increased in the past decade as towns west of Biddeford see more residential development.

The City Council last week authorized City Manger James Bennett to submit comments on the turnpike authority’s recently released four-year capital investment plan, which does not include any Exit 32 modifications. Bennett said the city believes that expanding entry into Exit 31 from the westerly side of the turnpike should be included in the plan and that an additional exit between Biddeford and Saco is needed to reduce the volume of traffic in both downtowns.

Members of the Planning Board and Conservation Commission have raised a number of issues they want to see addressed during discussions of the zoning change and project proposal, including watershed protection, environmental and wildlife impacts, affordable housing and whether it would challenge the viability of the downtown area.

“There are so many natural resources in that area, all of which need to be addressed,” said Ken Beuchs, a Conservation Commission member, noting the project’s proximity to Thatcher Brook, Saco River and deer runs.

Beuchs said his primary concern is that the discussions could be rushed to meet deadlines to make recommendations to the council and that there won’t be adequate public input. City meetings currently are held on Zoom and not all residents have easy access to that technology, he said.

“This is something that really deserves further publicity so the public can weigh in on it,” he said.

Eddy, the planning and development director, said his staff is still developing a timeline for review of the zoning change. Putting together a timeline for the review is complicated by the coronavirus because of limits on in-person gatherings, he said. The City Council waived the typical 30-day requirement for a recommendation from the Planning Board.

If the zoning change is approved, the project developers would then seek approval from the City Council for a master plan for the project, Eddy said. That approach is similar to the one taken by the University of New England, which has an approved master plan for its campus. Once a master plan is approved, each phase of development would go through the city’s normal site plan review process.

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