2017-04-28 / Front Page

Lower Village master plan gets an author

By Wm. Duke Harrington Staff Writer

KENNEBUNK — Selectmen in Kennebunk have endorsed the Lower Village Committee’s selection of a consultant to prepare a master plan for revitalizing the town’s historic business district and have appropriated $75,000 to pay for that work even though the account that money will come from is already in the red.

According to Kennebunk Finance Director Joel Downs, the Lower Village TIF (Tax Increment Financing) District currently has a deficit of $74,290. That existing debt was not brought up at the board’s April 11 vote to authorize spending another $75,000 to create a master plan for future improvement projects. Even without that negative number on the table, Selectman Ed Karytko railed at the impact on taxpayers of any work the plan, once completed, might recommend.

The seven-person village committee picked Harriman Associates, which has headquarters in Auburn and an office in Portland, due in large part to the firm’s 2015 merger with Cecil Group Landscaping Architecture, of Boston, said Mat Eddy, Kennebunk’s economic development director.

The committee hosted hour-long interviews with six of the eight firms that applied to write the plan, Eddy said, although he did not identify which two which failed to make that first cut. On the committee’s nomination, selectmen voted 7-1 to award the contract to Harriman.

Among other things, Eddy said the plan, due to be completed by this fall, will:

 Establish “a very inclusive process” that encourages maximum input from residential owners, business property owners and business tenants in the village, on what the area needs,

 Develop “a visual plan” for Lower Village that will guide infrastructure improvements throughout the area, including utilities, sidewalks, lighting, roads, on-street parking and transit stops, while also being “sensitive to the long term sustainability of Lower Village as a place to live, work, and visit,”

 Identify transportation “connectivity opportunities,” whether private or public, to be pursued in the future,

 Provide input to guide the planning board in the development of building design standards for the village,

 Arrive at a design solution for the Cooper’s Corner intersection,

 Encourage the continued operation of the Franciscan Monastery under its present ownership and style, “preserving one of the most unique properties in the town of Kennebunk,”

 Provide guidance to selectmen in developing bicycle and pedestrian “way-finding programs,” to encourage those modes of transportation,

 Provide “a general understanding” of the costs involved for all improvements recommended in the final master plan, and,

 Allow Kennebunk, by existence of the plan, to apply to the Maine Department of Transportation’s Municipal Partnership Initiative Program.

But not everyone was thrilled by the prospect.

“I have a real problem with this,” Selectman Ed Karytko said, “and that’s that a lot of meetings have been held where a lot of this stuff has already been gone over.”

Karytko said that, rather than paying a consultant, the committee should just pick from among the most popular ideas raised during a series of “visioning sessions” held in early 2016 with residents and business owners in the area. But more to his point, Karytko questioned where the town might find the money to do all, or even any, of the projects Harriman might roll into its master plan.

“If it’s not in the cards to be able to do things like this,” he said, pointing to the outline provided by Eddy of what the plan will accomplish, “then why spend the $75,000 to put a plan together?”

“The idea is to understand the cost of improvements so that we can understand what to do two or three years down the road, which is something we don’t have right now,” Eddy said, adding that both the Lower Village Committee and the town’s economic development committee “felt we really needed someone from the outside to come in and put this together.”

“To do nothing down there would be a crime,” Selectman Dan Boothby said. “There’s such a problem down there.”

“But you’ve got to understand, to do something down there and decide we’re going to spend $3 million, or $4 million, or $5 million, it’s going to be a crime if people can’t afford it and have to move out of this town,” Karytko shot back.

“That’s a fair point. I understand,” Boothby replied. “But we need to know where we’re going to go. You’re always saying we need to know the direction we are going to go and the cost of what it is going to be. We have to do something down there, Ed. We can’t just leave it the way it is.”

Board chairman Dick Morin reminded Karytko that voters have the final say on almost all spending, and will get to weigh in on which projects in the finished master plan, if any, get done.

But Karytko would have none of it, declaring himself already fed up with the pace of public spending.

“From now until June 13, I am going to ask every person in this town to vote against the town budget and the school budget, because I think it’s about time the people in this town take a stand,” he said.

However, Morin said that would put Kerytko in violation of selectboard bylaws.

“There is a very specific clause that talks to the behavior of the selectmen and speaking against what the board has voted. Go back and read your bylaws,” Morin said.

Meanwhile, Selectman Blake Baldwin struck a more consolatory tone.

“I think the town owes you a debt of gratitude,” he told Karytko. “You are the fiscal conscience of this board and your constant reminders to be circumspect about putting our hands in the residents’ pockets is a good thing.

“I know it’s made me a better selectmen,” Baldwin said, noting that he thinks of Karytko every time he’s the last to leave the selectmen’s meeting room, and turns to flick out the lights, to save a few pennies.

“But we can’t just stop being a town,” Baldwin said, pivoting back to the village plan. “We can’t just stay in place and not move forward. I don’t think that’s the answer here. And what I would suggest to you is that we ought to be working on making the pie bigger and not scrambling over the little crumbs that are left.”

Baldwin said the master plan might help uncover a way to boost business interests in Lower Village, and thus the tax haul from those properties, thereby taking “some of the pressure” off of residential tax bills.

Boothby noted that anything done in the Lower Village would not impact the tax rate, because it would come from the TIF district fund. Of course, he noted, the TIF still represents tax dollars at work although, as Baldwin noted, every dollar spent in TIF money is a dollar that is not added to the town’s general operating budget, which is what drives the tax on residential properties.

According to town Finance Director Joel Downs, the Lower Village TIF was created in 2010, at which time the properties within the district were assessed at $4.6 million. Since then, the value has grown by $6.3 million, to a total of about $10.9 million, he said. However, the taxes on that new valuation do not get added to the town’s overall valuation, and the extra tax money above what the Lower Village properties would have paid in 2010 does not go into the town’s general kitty. Instead that annual overage from the 2010 rate — which came to $96,139 in the 2015-2016 tax year, the most recent with audited figures — is retained for use in the district, for infrastructure upgrades and economic development.

In 2012-2013, Kennebunk spent a little more than $744,000 on street improvements on Western Avenue from the H.B. Provisions store to the Mathew J. Lanigan Bridge. The project stopped short of burying utility lines, as originally hoped, because, Morin said, “that would have cost another $2 million.”

A January 2015 presentation to selectmen by the town’s economic development committee, then chaired by Baldwin, said there were at that time, still $5.8 million in work to be done to Lower Village, including the utility work Morin mentioned, as well as parking enhancements, other infrastructure upgrades, and the creation of a visitors center, along with marketing and events production.

The money for work that was done was borrowed from the town’s undesignated surplus account and paid back with annual TIF revenue. According to Downs, as of June 30, 2016, the TIF still owes the general fund $74,290.

Funds to pay for the new master plan will be borrowed from the town’s general fund, Downs said. However, the selectboard decision to appropriate that money will not go to voters, because it is considered a short-term loan and not a permanent draw, Downs said.

“I don’t want to say [repayments] are guaranteed, but they’re reasonably assured,” Downs said in an April 24 interview, noting that the TIF district will be in place until 2040. “And if in fact more investment occurs, any deficits are going to be paid off that much faster.”

Downs said the current debt, before the addition of the $75,000 master plan, was expected to be paid off by June 30, 2018.

Among other things, money from the towns’ three TIF districts have been used to make more than $2 million in improvements to Main Street, a $650,000 upgrade to the Scotsman Brook storm drain, $80,000 in Route 1 bridge sidewalk repairs and lighting enhancements, $500,000 in upgrades to Alfred Road, and a $300,000 put toward renovation of the former Pythian Block at 76-84 Main Street.

In that regard, Lower Village Committee Chairman Betsy Smith said her group is not asking for anything other than “the same consideration given to the downtown, in spades.”

“We think there’s a real economic opportunity,” she said. “Clean up the Port Road, take the businesses down Western Avenue, and we think we can pull the tourists across the bridge and get them all the way past H.B. [Provisions], to start spending money there. Right now it’s kind of a dump. You can fix up the downtown forever, but the tourists are down there. We all think it’s time to clean it up down there. It’s not very pretty.”

Baldwin also advised Karytko — “to assuage your feelings,” he said — that the Lower Village Committee had voted against spending $15,000 selectmen previously approved to fund a parking study for Lower Village.

“Yeah, they went nuts,” Smith agreed, summing up committee opposition to plan focused solely on the village’s infamous parking problem.

Selectman Deborah Beal said a complete master plan would show, “not only what the wish list is,” for Lower Village improvements, “but what the feasibility is.”

“Without this [plan] we don’t even have a jumping off point,” she said.

Still, Karytko was dubious, suggesting that the plan might well create a rift between village residents and business owners that he said is not insignificant as it is.

“I’ve attended a lot of meetings down there, and the message I get from the residents is basically, there’s a line between residential and commercial, and don’t cross that line,” he said. “So, really, what in heaven’s name, realistically, can we do?”

“That’s why we bring someone in from the outside, because you don’t know,” Selectman Christopher Cluff said. “None of us know.”

“We are going to experts who are going to provide that info,” Morin said. “None of us are planners. None of us are designers. None of us have the expertise. You can talk about what this one wants and what that one wants, but until we have options to put before anybody, it’s a lot like, with all due respect, voting on the dam solution. We didn’t tackle the dams without the other half of the equation, which is, how much is it going to cost, and what is it going to look like? This is going to provide that.”

“And to absolutely put it to bed, this is not residents versus commercial,” Smith said. “The committee is a good mix of the chamber of commerce, and residents, and I think we get along very well. And the residents are very much in favor of making it a better place, as are the business owners. Almost all of us believe this is a win-win. You may find one or two curmudgeons who say don’t touch it, but I think it’s time.”

“I respect what you say,” Karytko said, “and we can say, OK, fix it up, but if we do that we’re going to be pricing a lot of people out of the community.”

“For you to tell me we’ve done all these other projects,” Smith said, “but the train has left the station for Lower Village, that is a fiscal decision, but if that’s what your saying . . . “

“That’s not what I’m saying, but the reality is [what it is],” Karytko interjected.

That left it to Morin to sum of the board vote.

“Harriman will provide us a blueprint and then we’ll take the pieces that we may or may not care to exercise and plug those into a timeline that is reasonable and affordable,” he said.

In addition to Smith, the Lower Village Committee includes Gregory Burke, Laura Dolce (who also is executive director of the chamber of commerce), Pat Foley, Wendy Ross, Theresa Willette, and Miriam Whitehouse.

Besides Harriman, applicants for the master plan job included BETA Group of Manchester, N.H.; Claster Landscape Architecture & Planning of South Portland; Dodson & Flinker of Florence, Mass.; Milone & MacBroom of Portland; Mitchell & Associates of Portland; Richardson & Associates of Saco; and, Terrence J. DeWan & Associates of Yarmouth.

Staff Writer Duke Harrington can be reached at news@kennebunkpost.com.

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