A rendering of the town center portion of The Downs in Scarborough. Developers have said they need more residential building permits than currently allowed in order to make the town center feasible. Contributed / The Downs
The Scarborough Town Council gave preliminary approval Wednesday to amend the town’s growth management ordinance to allow more residential development at The Downs over the next three years.
The 4-3 vote, however, followed confusion and complaints by some councilors over the “messy” process and a suggestion that the process may have been changed to circumvent the number of votes needed to approve the increase in building permits. Councilors Jon Anderson, Don Hamill and Nick McGee voted against the amendment.
The amendment would allow The Downs to build 289 units over the next three years, 160 more than they are currently allowed. Downs developers had asked nearly a year ago for an increase in permits in the form of an exemption from the ordinance.
The increase voted on Sept. 21, however, came in the form of an amendment to the ordinance, rather than an exemption to it. Councilors seemed confused when Chairperson John Cloutier brought the amendment up for a vote instead of following the exemption approval process outlined in the growth management ordinance.
Because of the confusion, Hamill, asked to “push the pause button,” hold more workshops, and figure out how to proceed.
Developers first requested an exemption on Oct. 27, 2021. After a slew of meetings and workshops with the Town Council over the past 11 months, they have revised their request twice, bringing it down from an exemption for the entire town center portion of the project to 430 exempted units over a five-year period, and down again from that request to 289 units over the next three years.
Developers have said they need to be able to build more residential units in that timeframe to make a planned town center viable, with some multi-family buildings planned to be larger than the 43 units they are now allowed per year.
“I looked at the (289) number and the thing I liked about it was the lowest number I had seen so far from The Downs, but by no means did that indicate I’d support this as a motion,” Hamill said.
But Hamill was unhappy with the vote coming so soon.
“The fact that it’s on the agenda is personally, for me, an embarrassment. So, I think we push the pause button until we get our arms around this thing,” he said.
Anderson questioned the reason for the amendment versus an exemption.
Under town rules, an exemption to the ordinance requires a super majority vote to be approved – at least five votes in favor – while approving an amendment to the ordinance requires just four.
“It’s clearly four people, honestly, at this point, who want to move this forward and circumvent the process as we’ve tried to establish with a super majority,” Anderson said. “You guys can do that if you want to, but I don’t think that’s good government. I think that lacks some integrity, to be honest, and that’s not something I’m supportive and proud of being on this council.”
Cloutier argued an amendment was just one way forward and said he is open to scheduling a workshop ahead of a public hearing and a final vote on the amendment.
“All this is, it’s introducing an idea, which any councilor is welcome to do,” Cloutier said. “Receiving your feedback, we’re obviously split. Let’s hear from the public and then as a council, we need to decide what the next step is going to be.”
Anderson described the exemption process to this point as “messy” and lacking in transparency. Hamill described it as “extremely confusing,” and said, “if someone asked me at this moment ‘can you please explain the current state of all of the exemptions that are out there from The Downs alone,’ I would not be able to do that.”
The council is expected to host a public hearing and final vote at their next meeting in October. A council workshop on the amendment will likely be scheduled for next week.