2018-07-27 / Front Page

Mini golf plan not a gimme

By Duke Harrington Staff Writer

KENNEBUNK — A plan to transform Kennebunk’s old Route 1 rest stop into a miniature golf park may not be a tap-in putt.

At a special meeting July 19, the town’s economic development committee (EDC) met to consider the idea, but elected to hold off voting to make a recommendation to selectmen, while an abuting landower arose to object to the project.

“We’re making a $10 million investment in the town, building 15 duplex units there, and having an amusement park — which is what this is classified as — as an outdoor use next door to 30 homes is problematic for us,” said Chip Hall, senior vice president of Cottage Advisors of Maine.

On Nov. 27, the Kennebunk Planning Board approved a final subdivision plan for Cottage Advisors’ 7.7-acre Webhannet Place development off Route 1. On Friday, Town Engineer Chris Osterrieder said Cottage Advisors has already completed “substantial site work,” laying out the subdivision road and running infrastructure.

The project is slated to include a commercial development, yet to be determined, along the site’s Route 1 frontage.

“If there was an amusement park there and we hadn’t come by to do our residential development yet, we would not build 30 units there,” Hall told EDC members. “People in those homes do not want to listen to people outdoors at all hours of the night.”

Hall noted that his company built Sea Glass Village cottage rentals next to the Wonder Mountain Fun Park in Wells.

“So, we know what it’s like,” he said.

Beth Fossett, who, with her husband Tim, has offered the town $115,000 for the former rest area, said the mini-golf course they propose to build “will be respectful” of Hall’s housing project.

“We are aware there is a (housing) development going in there, but we also are aware that when you built your development in Wells, Wonder Mountain was there first,” she said. “I understand it’s the opposite (situation) now, but we’re neighbors, this is not adversarial. We will do everything to be as respectful as we possibly can, with whatever buffer zone we can build.”

She said wetlands on the property will help to separate the mini-golf site from Hall’s housing complex.

The Fossetts, who own The Lighthouse, a lighting fixture shop located on the other side of the old rest area from Webhannet Place, at 88 York St., submitted the only proposal to a town solicitation to sell the 14.3-acre parcel.

The rest area was closed several years ago and the site has been used in recent years only as a snow dump to aid winter road plowing operations.

Voters agreed to sell the property in June 2014, by a vote of 1,708-545. However, with wetlands and vernal pools rendering all but about five acres off limits to development, finding the right buyer has been a challenge.

In August 2015, Hall’s father Howard Hall offered $175,000 and proposing to build residential condo units on the site. However, the EDC rejected the offer, preferring some sort of business use along the Route 1 corridor.

In March 2016, selectmen agreed to sell the lot to Benjamin Meggs of Wells. Meggs offered $115,000, announcing plans for a 20,000-square-foot building dedicated to the boat-building trade. But development never got going and the town eventually pulled out of the purchase and sale agreement, putting the site back out to bid.

Tim Fossett said he and his wife mulled several options for the rest area, but found most prospects fraught with land mines. Warehousing seemed a no-go if not within a half mile of I-95. Office space was deemed unduly speculative given empty space already in town. Lumber hikes of 78 percent since 2016 drove residential construction out of reach.

“I’d love to build workforce housing and rent (units) for $1,000 a month, but I just don’t think it can happen,” Tim Fossett said.

Meanwhile, although self-storage units seemed “like a gold mine,” Fossett said that just didn’t give him a warm, fuzzy feeling.

“Frankly, that probably would be a much easier business to run that mini-golf, but is that really for the good of the town? We don’t think it is,” he said.

In the end, a miniature golf course seemed like a fun, family-themed use that would benefit Kennebunk.

“This town is not all multi-millionaires. A lot of it is working families, and a lot of what is here does not necessarily target those families,” he said. “But the important thing is that this idea is not just something we’ve thrown at the wall to see if it will stick.”

For their project, the Fossetts have contracted South Portland engineering firm Sebago Technics, as well as New Jersey firm Harris Miniature Golf Courses Inc. to design and build the site, if selectmen give the initial nod.

Laura Dolce, executive director of the Kennebunk, Kennebunkport and Arundel Chamber of Commerce, said a mini-golf course would be a boon to blue collar tourists, as well as locals.

“Where is the nearest mini-golf course is a common question that we get asked,” she said. “Any time you can bring family-friendly entertainment to a community, whether it’s for visitors or residents, you can never have too much of that. And we don’t have much of it now, so this could be a real asset. I’m very excited about it.”

The Fossetts’ vision for the miniature golf course would make maximum use of the site by skirting the environmentally sensitive areas. However, in order for that to happen, voters must agree to rezone the property, as a miniature golf course is specifically defined in town ordinances as an “amusement park,” are not currently allowed anywhere in town.

At the July 19 EDC meeting, no one was certain exactly when amusement parks were banned from Kennebunk, or, perhaps more importantly, why.

The town’s interim economic development director, Jim Black, encouraged the EDC to “endorse this in concept.” Doing so, he said, would give him a green light to negotiate a purchase and sale agreement with the Fossetts. That agreement would have to be approved by the board of selectmen, and voters would have to approve the necessary zoning change. A thumbs-up from the EDC would help clear the first hurdle, he said, perhaps giving selectmen pause should the feel inclined to reject the Fossett’s offer out of hand.

“I don’t want them to reject it,” Black said. “I want to go through a negotiation process and put a purchase and sale agreement in front of the board. The board can then reject that agreement, just as they can reject this at any point in time, but not going through a fair negotiation with the only people who responded to the RFP, to me that lacks transparency.”

Not all members of the EDC were gung-ho for that battle plan.

“As much as I like the idea of mini-golf — I mean, every time we go on vacation, the kids and I find a place to play miniature golf — I don’t think as the EDC we should be challenging zoning,” committee member June Huston said. “I feel like it’s the planning board that should do that (make any recommendation to amend zoning).”

Osterrieder said the “cleanest” process would be to hold a public debate on the amusement parks, parsing what does and does not count, and drafting into the the town’s new comprehensive plan an outline for where in town things like a miniature golf course might be appropriate. However, the current comprehensive plan update is going on its third year, and adding a new wrinkle now might create further delay, he said.

Another option might be to simply amend the definition of amusement parks in local zoning codes to eliminate the reference to miniature golf,” Osterrieder said. However, that might open up the town to applications for several such developments, he added.

Even before the Fossetts submitted their bid, there had been some vocal pushback among town officials of late against creating any new contract zones in town, given that there are eight such special one-off zones already on the books.

Osterrieder said that, even absent that discontent, creating a new contract zone for the Route 1 rest area might be problematic.

“Part of it comes back to how and why we do contract zoning,” he said in a July 20 interview. “We typically have a contract zone because of unique features present at a particular piece of property.”

As an example, Osterrieder cited special zones created to allow cell phone towers, which need to be in a particular area to deliver the desired service, and which provide a public benefit that can argue to the reasons for countermanding the lot’s original zoning rules.

While the vernal pools create a unique circumstance on the Route 1 rest area property, that’s not why a miniature golf course is not allowed there.

The issue is that any such use is banned town-wide.

“Adding contract zoning to something just because a use doesn’t exist there, I’m not sure that really passes the test of why you do a contract zone,” Osterrieder said. “It’s really difficult in this case to assess the merits of a contact zone apart from saying that’s what is needed to make it (a miniature golf course) work. And that may not be the best argument for the planning board to agree to a contract zone.”

Despite concern over whether or not a contract zone is the best means to clear a path for the Fossett’s proposal, and a general unwillingness expressed by EDC members to “step on the planning board’s toes,” committee chairman Bob Georgitis said it is the duty of the group to speak up, if it feels a miniature golf course is best use for the old rest area, even if such facilities are not allowed in Kennebunk.

“Part of why we are here is to have vision and to call attention to things that are wrong with our processes,” he said.

The EDC meets next on Aug. 2. Georgitis said he would put a vote on whether or not to recommend the Fossetts’ proposal to selectmen on the agenda for that session.

Selectmen meet next on Aug. 14. Black had said he hoped to put something before selectmen at that meeting, but did not respond to a July 20 voice message requesting an update. Town Manager Mike Pardue similarly did not respond to a July 22 email requesting information on when and in what form selectmen might consider the Fossetts’ bid.

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

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