On July 13, the Town Council held a workshop to review the draft terms of a GMO exemption for The Downs. The town manager, in consultation with council chair and vice chair, was charged to negotiate with the Downs to establish mutually agreeable terms that could allow for an exemption to the Growth Management Ordinance (GMO).  An exemption would allow for a faster pace of residential development, IF a supermajority vote by the council approves the exemption request based on the applicant demonstrating public benefit to the community.

The original exemption request was submitted in October 2021. While the article in the Leader last week expressed “The Scarborough Town Council and The Downs are making progress in working on an agreement…”, I would argue what was presented was a step backward, not forward. The document reviewed was essentially the same information provided in October, with continued loose terms around public benefits and minimal performance guarantees. It included a revised request that would allow for up to 860 units over a 10-year period, of which 300 units could be permitted in any single year during that period.  It included “reserving land” for a school and a community center, which is an existing obligation under the current credit enhancement agreement. Both capital projects will still require a vote approved by referendum by residents and will be bonded and paid for by taxpayers, not by the developer.

At the workshop, resident after resident went up to the podium to speak and continued to voice their concerns regarding the pace of residential growth in Scarborough. Emails continue to come to the council requesting that we not support the exemption. Our Town-wide survey showed that the majority of residents were not in favor of the type of growth, and also expressed concerns regarding the pace of growth. The draft exemption terms did not change that sentiment.

This has become more complicated than it needs to be. Residents want a slower pace of growth. There has been nothing tangible offered that would convince me that a faster pace of growth is in the best interest of the general welfare of the residents. I love the idea of a vibrant “town center,” but given the feedback from the community and the risk to the Town, I’m not convinced the tradeoff is there to justify an exemption. I’m ready to vote no.

That being said, our work is not done. We still have two major policy objectives that need to be addressed: 1) Residents want a slower pace of residential growth and 2) we need to find a way to concentrate our growth in the high growth areas, like the Downs. The GMO is one of our policy tools to regulate growth.  After voting to support it, and after a year of learning, it’s time to change it to better achieve both policy objectives. We’ve been building over 300 units per year for the past five years.  As an example, if we were to adjust our GMO threshold from 143 units to a slightly higher number — 200-250 units, remove other exemptions and direct the majority of those units to designated high growth areas, we would be 1) growing at a slower pace of growth compared to the last five years and 2) directing growth to high growth areas, like the Downs, that could help to activate the “town center”.

More work will be needed to develop final numbers. With this approach, the Downs may not be able to produce exactly what they’ve envisioned and marketed to the public, but residents will get greater predictability on growth at a slower pace and perhaps some benefits if the Down’s proceeds with their plans.

It’s time to vote no on the exemption and for the council to take action and change the GMO to both manage growth and activate the Downs.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Scarborough Town Council.

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