SCARBOROUGH – Despite neighborhood opposition voiced at a marathon four-hour Planning Board meeting Monday, construction of an 81-unit assisted living complex at one of Scarborough’s busiest intersections appears fated for approval as soon as all state permits are in hand.
According to Andrew Johnson of Portland-based SMRT Architects, who spoke on behalf of Wegman Cos. – the Rochester, N.Y., firm that wants to build a 59,000-square-foot complex similar to 14 it runs in New York and Ohio – final state approval could come in as little as “two weeks.”
Local residents, including one member of the Town Council, complained about increased traffic at what they claim is “already a failing intersection,” at the corner of Black Point Road and U.S. Route 1. Others have questioned the impact of stormwater runoff on homes downhill from the 8.5-acre development site. Still others, in a new wrinkle, claimed the property, as well as adjoining land belonging to the Jarvis Group, is a habitat for the endangered New England cottontail rabbit.
But the Planning Board, from its chairman down to alternate members, praised the development.
“I don’t know if there’s another project that could generate less traffic,” said Planning Board member John Chamberlain, noting the prediction from Gray-based Gorrell-Palmer Consulting Engineers of 16 “trip ends” during peak evening activity in the area. That translates to no more than “one car every 10 minutes,” said Tom Gorrell.
That contrasts with the 104 peak-hour trip ends predicted in a previous proposal for the site, made by Jarvis before it carved off a parcel for Wegman. At that time, Jarvis sought approval for a 54-unit residential apartment building, but backed off when “the economy collapsed,” according to group spokesman John Cohn. In 2006, Jarvis also proposed 34-condo units and retail shops for the space.
“I cannot sit in this chair and deny this project on traffic issues,” said Planning Board Chairman Allen Paul. “That would be absolutely the worst thing we could ever do when I think of what almost went there five years ago. If we can manage the stormwater, the traffic to me is a non-issue.”
“It does appear to me that this development with the proper stormwater management system would have a positive impact on the area in general,” said alternate Planning Board member Kerry Corthell.
Johnson claimed the stormwater management, currently in the hands of the state Department of Environmental Protection, will divert water 250 feet away from Cedarbrook condominiums. But the area already suffers “a swale of water coming down the hill,” according to resident Joan Jagolinzer.
Even at the top of the hill, residents complain of water problems.
“This is what’s in my basement right now, under drought conditions,” said Black Point Road resident Jay Phelps, while holding up a jug of dirty, gray water. “So, putting a building the size of Hannaford Bros. below our property seems absurd. I would say a seventh grader with a basic science education would deem that a bad idea.”
Phelps, like almost all opponents to the Wegman project, said he is not fighting against assisted living facilities per se, just the location.
“Scarborough is a medical community, and becoming even more so,” he said. “But, there are other places for this project. Unfortunately, the politics of this have gotten very thick and very harsh. It’s gotten very contentious and very discouraging.”
Phelps left the meeting with his two young daughters immediately after his comments, but was answered more than 90 minutes later when Planning Board members weighed in.
“There might be other sites around town that are more suitable, but this is the one the applicant has control over,” said Corey Fellows. “We can’t compel an applicant to purchase other lands, or consider alternatives that are not part of the proposal before us.”
Meanwhile, Planning Board member Ronald Mazer commented on the politics, which he said Phelps poisoned in June when the Friends of Oak Hill formed and he was quoted calling the Planning Board process “a stinky, filthy, rotten mess.”
“You have a developer and a mortgage developer who also leases heavy equipment on the Planning Board,” Phelps said at the time. “Conflict of interest? I would say. There’s a lot of money on the table that nobody’s being told about.”
“I’ve always respected what people have to say,” Mazer said Monday. “However, I draw the line in the sand when somebody indicts the integrity of this board.”
Like his peers, Mazer said he could find not fault with the Wegman project, despite the problems he has getting on to Black Point Road from his home on Winnocks Neck Road.
“There is a problem with traffic there, nobody denies that,” he said. “However, I do not see where this project adds to the problem any more than it already is.”
In fact, said Gorrell, Wegman will work to alleviate issues, giving some of its land abutting Black Point Road to create a right turn lane and a sidewalk. It also will pay to widen the road enough to accommodate a left turn lane in what, according to state transportation officials, is already a “high crash” area. That work, said Johnson, is on top of the $22,835 traffic impact fee Wegman must pay to develop the site.
“I kind of feel like the town is almost double dipping a little bit here, to the extent that we’re still getting the impact fee but we’re also getting substantial improvements that are going to help,” said Paul. “I really feel like the applicant is trying to be a good neighbor. In my opinion, they are going beyond what they need to do to try and help improve the situation.”
Still, Black Point Road resident Lisa Ronco, who has spearheaded opposition as head of the Friends of Oak Hill, said Wegman has been utterly unresponsive to her group.
Cohn and Johnson both said an alternate entrance to the development from Route 1, as requested by Ronco, Town Councilor Carol Rancourt, and others, is impossible. In meetings with the Army Corp of Engineers during the Jarvis Group’s previous development proposals, it came out that only “about 1 acre” of its property is developable along Route 1.
“We were given to understand that our chances of getting a permit for anything else were slim to none,” said Johnson.
But that, said Ronco, is as it should be, and is reason enough why the Wegman land also should remain undeveloped.
“This is the last green space in Oak Hill,” she said Tuesday. “It serves as a natural buffer for many from traffic noise and pollution, and as a home to wildlife.
“The Friends of Oak Hill have done a tremendous amount of work, research and public speaking on this project,” said Ronco. “We will continue to voice our concerns and will be involved in the process until the end because we care about our neighborhood.”