A view of the Saco River from the Elm Street bridge in Biddeford shows a warehouse building located on a 4-acre property on Diamond Street. That 4 acres, along with 8 acres currently owned by the city, are being proposed by a developer for up to 340 housing units over four buildings. The City Council has authorized City Manager Jim Bennett to negotiate an agreement for the city-owned land. Rolla Wells Photo

BIDDEFORD — The City Council has authorized City Manager Jim Bennett to negotiate an agreement with a Kennebunkport-based property developer to sell eight, city-owned acres on Diamond Street in Biddeford — perhaps with a caveat.

General terms of the proposed agreement indicate a potential land swap could take place — and if it doesn’t, the developer would pay the city $1 million for the acreage.

This is a conceptual drawing by developer Lord & Harrington, LLC, which is proposing 340 housing units on Diamond Street in Biddeford. Part of the property is city-owned land, which the company hopes to acquire. Courtesy image

Lord & Harrington, LLC proposes to build as many as 340 units of owned and rental housing  in four buildings at 1 Diamond St. on four acres it plans to buy from Gloves Etc. Inc., which is assessed by the city with a value of $550,000. The company is also eyeing an adjacent eight acres of city-owned land, currently assessed at $220,000.

Under the terms of a proposed agreement between the city and the developer, the city would sell the parcel it owns to Lord & Harrington, with the latter placing $1 million in escrow. If the developer identifies property acceptable to the City Council within a year after the conveyance and later submits a plan to develop it into housing or a mixed commercial use, the $1 million would be returned to the developer.

If no suitable land is found, the money would be released to the city.

General terms of the proposed agreement spell out that 30 percent of the units would be owned, with the rest being rental properties.

Lord & Harrington is to construct a RiverWalk along the entire shore of the proposed project, with a public easement. It would provide two acres of open space, also with an easement to the city for passive recreational use by the public, along with six free public parking spaces. The value of the RiverWalk and open space are expected to have a development value of $900,000 to $1.2 million, according to a list of general terms.

There were questions by the council about the city’s sewer system and how that relates to the land parcel. City Solicitor Keith Jacques said the city would retain a storm water and sewage easements on the property.

The 6-1 approval of the city councilors present authorizes Bennett to negotiate a Joint Property Development agreement with Lord & Harrington, LLC, owned by Kevin Lord and Tim Harrington. It also allows the city manager to execute the agreement after a review by the city solicitor. Council President John McCurry cast the dissenting vote; Councilors Amy Clearwater and Norman Belanger were absent.

Resident Jane Harrell said she loves the idea of the RiverWalk and urged the city to consider user safety as an agreement is negotiated. “I hope the council would consider line of sight (and other measures) to increase overall visibility and safety,” she said.

Another resident, identified only as Cat, said the project sounds beautiful but he wondered why such a large project would incorporate city-owned land when affordable housing isn’t included. He pointed out nearly 300 households are on a wait list for affordable housing and said market rate rentals are beyond the means of most Biddeford residents.

Biddeford Housing Authority Director Guy Gagnon suggested increasing density in order to include affordable units in the project. Bennett, the city manager, said a bill before the Legislature would allow a project such as the one sought to be a Tax Increment Financing location, which would allow the city to shelter some of the money it earns from the land and use it for affordable housing. He said it is his understanding that the bill emerged from committee with a unanimous “ought to pass,” and would likely be approved. If signed by the governor, it would allow the council to look at sheltering some of the proceeds.

He pointed out the TIF money couldn’t be used for items like salaries or a plow truck.

“It would allow us to provide additional resources … directly toward meeting affordable housing goals,” said Bennett. “We feel very good about the project and the legislation will come along at the same time.”

“I hope the council supports this,” said Councilor Marc Lessard. “I can see, three years from now, when you drive into the city and see Gooch Street (former Saco-Lowell building) developed and see half a mile up the river completely done. It will set a tremendous tone throughout.”

“It’s a great project and a great gateway, between this and the Saco Lowell project,” Mayor Alan Casavant said.

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