SCARBOROUGH – A proposal to relax zoning around Scarborough Downs crossed its first hurdle Wednesday when the Town Council referred it to the Planning Board for comment. But spokesmen for the venerable race track say it will still take a casino to save the day.
The new rules would create an area called the “Crossroads Planned Development District” on the 480-acre Scarborough Downs property where developers could create as many as 40 housing units per acre in buildings up to six stories high.
“It would be perhaps the broadest zone in town in terms of the range of issues that could occur,” said Town Planner Dan Bacon, when presenting the final draft of the nine-page concept.
While the Crossroads proposal was drawn up independently by the town and not at the request of Scarborough Downs, the boundary of the new crossroads district exactly traces the racetrack's property line. The big idea behind the concept, town officials says, is to encourage creation of a mix-use village in what is the geographical heart of Scarborough, a town that lacks a traditional Main Street center.
Ed MacColl, attorney and spokesman for Downs owner Sharon Terry, said it’s unlikely she will attempt to develop the site herself. Instead, he said, it’s more likely Terry will set off lots to be built by others under the new Crossroads rules, which attempt to take a long-term view of the area as a whole.
However, MacColl was clear that while the Downs welcomes the proposed zoning change, it still believes an expansion of gambling is the best means to secure survival of the facility.
“Mrs. Terry has been dedicated since she lost her husband — really, her life — to trying to save Maine harness racing,” he said. “Right now, it’s suffering more than ever because of the competition from facilities that have gaming but don’t support live racing.”
Earlier this year, the Downs asked to include in the Crossroads language a provision stating that a casino, still not allowed in the change from the current “Business 2” district, could be an option if approved by voters locally and statewide. That amendment was rejected, according to Councilor Judy Roy, largely because that’s the status quo regardless of whether it’s spelled out in the zoning ordinance.
Although the Crossroads district has nothing at this point to say about a casino, one other spokesman for the Downs, CBRE Boulos broker Andrew Ingalls, devoted his time Wednesday to promoting the idea that it should. Without a casino, any commercial development in the Crossroads district will fare no better than the race track, he intimated.
“You need a draw in order to create an interest in retail development,” he said. “If the opportunity to develop a village center, a co-ordinated pathway through this area, is going to take place, it needs to be done with a component similar to a gaming facility, or it's not going to get done."
Scarborough’s long-range planning committee has spent more than a year crafting the Crossroads zoning amendment, meeting with representatives of the racetrack in public and private as well as with abutting property owners. If adopted, it would let the Planning Board review projects in the district under “planned development” rules adopted by the town in 2007, but rarely used.
Automatic for developments larger than 5 acres, or ones including gas stations and drive-through restaurants, the master planning process lets developers be “more creative,” said Bacon, while also letting the town have greater-than-usual say, both in terms of design standards and a developments infrastructure connection to the overall district.
“Applicants get a lot of flexibility, particularly on space and bulk standards and setbacks, which provides a lot of opportunity to think outside the box,” Bacon said in January. “The tradeoff is that the Planning Board and the public has more say in the design, more leverage in ensuring that it fits with the site and works for the town.”
In addition to allowing residential development, the new crossroad zone would permit a wider array of commercial uses, such as hotels, assisted living centers, golf courses and “small-scale energy facilities,” than currently available in the “Business 2” zoning district. The new Crossroads zone would continue to allow harness racing and associated betting, though not other forms of gambling.
Much of the property surrounding Scarborough Downs has been up for sale since November 2010. A year later the track lost a third attempt to secure voter approval for expanded gambling at the site. MacColl said even though the zoning changes might make the land more attractive to potential buyers, it may not be enough to stem the slow, decades-long decline of harness racing, reported by some sources to be off more than 45 percent since 2003.
Scarborough Downs only uses about 100 acres of its lot, but could make do with as little as 35, MacColl said.
“In terms of harness racing’s survival, whether it’s here or at a relocated track, in the long run there will need to be gaming,” he said in January. “Selling some land will cover your loses for a while, but eventually the business needs to make sense.”