2018-08-24 / Front Page

Miniature golf plan lips out

By Duke Harrington Staff Writer

KENNEBUNK — Selectmen have rejected the lone offer to buy and rebuild a former highway rest stop on the south side of town, saying a planned miniature golf course is not an acceptable use in Kennebunk.

At its Aug. 14 meeting, the board met behind closed doors with Town Attorney Natalie Burns for about 45 minutes. Upon entering public session, they quickly voted to add consideration of the purchase offer to the agenda, then voted 5-2 to reject it.

“The proposal, while well put together, specifies a use that is not in compliance with our current ordinance,” Selectman Shiloh Schulte said.

Kennebunk zoning does not allow “outdoor amusement parks” anywhere in town, and specifically defines miniature golf courses as the type of activity intended to be banned.

This now marks the third stab at redeveloping the Route 1 site to fail since June 2014, when voters agreed 1,708-545 to unload the property. Town Manager Michael Pardue said Monday a fourth attempt will be made “by mid-September,” when he expects to issue a new public RFP (request for proposal).

But any new offer is likely to meet an equal or greater level of scrutiny, as promised by residents living near the site.

“We are concerned about a number of issues, regardless of what happens with the (next) RFP, concerning zoning and environmental issues, traffic and noise and light pollution,” said Caren Epstein, a resident of the Cedarwood Farm subdivision, located across York Street (Route 1) from the old rest stop.

The proposal

Tim and Beth Fossett, owners of The Lighthouse, a lighting fixture shop located at 88 York Street, adjacent to the rest area, offered $115,000 for the 14.3-acre property. In their 10-page proposal, the Fossetts acknowledged both environmental restrictions on the site — the presence of significant vernal pools has plagued previous redevelopment attempts — and the zoning issue. However, they felt a mini-golf course would be a low impact use that could be easily designed to work with the local terrain. They hoped to negotiate a contract zone that would have given voters a chance to approve or reject their concept for the property.

The Fossett’s bid was opened by town officials June 27 and the couple made a presentation to the Kennebunk Economic Development Committee (EDC) on July 19. At that session, committee members could not say exactly why, or even precisely when, outdoor amusement parks were outlawed in Kennebunk.

Tim Fossett said he and his wife mulled several possible uses for the site, but ultimately settled on a mini-golf course as something they felt would provide a much-needed, family-friendly activity in town — one that promised to be easy on the wallets for locals and middle-income tourists alike.

The concept won many supporters, including Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Laura Dolce, who said she was “very excited” about the project.

“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,” she said.

There also was wide acclaim on social media for the proposal, which initially gave the Fossetts heart that a public vote to amend zoning might meet minimal resistance. But Fossett said Monday he felt stiff opposition from some quarters caused selectmen to shy away from even entertaining the idea of further talks. Or any at all, as the Fossetts never got a chance to pitch selectmen directly on their idea.

According to EDC Vice-Chairman June Huston, that group was scheduled to vote at its Aug. 2 meeting on making a recommendation to selectmen on the mini-golf proposal. By that time, she said in an Aug. 20 interview, word had already filtered down that selectmen were planning to enter executive session at their next gathering, in order to discuss the project.

“So, we took no action, basically,” she said. We decided to wait to see what the results of that (meeting) were.”

The naysayers

Opposition to the project came largely on two fronts.

At the July 19 EDC meeting, Chip Hall, senior vice president of Cottage Advisors of Maine, called the Fossett’s bid “problematic” to his company’s own development interest.

Hall is currently building a series of 15 duplex buildings on 7.7 acres located next to the former rest area.

“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 said. “People in those homes do not want to listen to people outdoors at all hours of the night.”

That feeling echoed in advance an Aug. 10 letter submitted by Cedarwood Farm resident Caren Epstein, a document signed by 43 of her neighbors.

“Paramount among our concerns is the impact on the quality of life and character of the town,” the letter read. “While a robust downtown is vital to the community, and we appreciate the challenges faced by downtown businesses, Kennebunk residents are well aware that Route 1 traffic through town is already horrendous, particularly from June through October — peak season for tourists visiting (this proposed) miniature golf course.

The neighbors suggested Wonder Mountain Fun Park in Wells is near enough to the comparatively more residential and light business uses along Route 1 in Kennebunk.

“If the golf course is built (here), what’s next? It is the beginning of a slippery slope,” they wrote. “Does that make us NIMBYs? Absolutely. But with a combined residency of significantly more than a century in the Kennebunks and a commitment to the community, we would actively oppose it (a mini-golf course) regardless of where in town it was proposed.”

Kennebunk’s interim economic development director, Jim Black, had championed the Fossett’s bid, urging EDC member to recommend the project to selectmen. He had hoped to then lead negotiating that would lead to a public vote on a contract zone for the property sometime during the winter — soon enough to enable a spring start to construction.

Attempts to reach Black on Monday were unsuccessful.

The process

Immediately following the selectboard vote at its Aug. 14 meeting, Beth Fossett rose to acknowledge the site is “a tough piece of property,” given the vernal pool issue.

In August 2015, Chip Hall and his father Howard had offered $175,000 for the site, announcing a residential development. However, the EDC deemed that proposal to be inappropriate, preferring some sort of business use along Route 1.

Then, in March 2016, selectmen agreed to sell the lot to Benjamin Meggs of Wells for $115,000. Meggs announced plans for a 20,000-square-foot building dedicated to the boat-building trade. According to Black, Meggs was “unable to fulfill his obligations under the contract to come up with a viable plan.” Black said in a June interview that he helped extricate the town from the purchase and sale agreement signed with Meggs.

Both the Hall and Meggs plans would have been forced to wedge construction around the vernal pools. Either that or pay for mitigation by permanently conserving wetlands elsewhere in town to make up for any pools filled in by their developments.

In her comments, Fossett said that in a recent meeting with officials from the Department of Environmental Protection, she had learned that a maximum of 25 percent of the land area within 250 square feet of a vernal pool can be disturbed by development. Already, she said, 23 percent of that available area at the rest stop has been cleared. That mean most of the construction for a mini-golf course would have been on the back half of the property, further from the Hall development and the Cedarwood Farm residents.

“We had hoped, as we were the only bidder, that we might have the opportunity to come back around, if this isn’t what you choose to have us do on the property, to possibly (still) purchase it at fair market value and rework (something that is) within zoning,” she said.

“And you will have that opportunity,” board chairman Dick Morin said.

However, the board vote was to reject the Fossetts offer and go back out to bid. Pardue confirmed Monday that the couple will be afforded no courtesy beyond the opportunity to bid again.

Tim Fossett said Monday he was not sure that would happen.

“We did get a lot of support, but, quite frankly, we felt like we spun our wheels on this for about six months,” he said, referring to significant research work put into the proposal before submitting a bid. “Neither Beth not I are too keen on spinning them again.”

Given that the last two attempts to sell the rest area lot have each drew just one bid, Huston asked selectmen after their vote if they might consider working with a commercial broker to market the property.

Selectmen Christopher Cluff said the 2014 warrant article approved by votes “limits that ability.”

“It basically has to be an RFP (process),” he said.

Kennebunk resident Paul Menard — referred to by Morin as a “frequent flyer” at selectboard meetings — offered a mild rebuke of the Aug. 14 vote.

Although Menard personally opposed the mini-golf idea, he said, he faulted selectmen for adding the decision to their agenda just moments before voting on it. Without advance warning of the business at hand, those who did support the project were effectively denied any chance to lobby selectmen for a favorable vote, he said.

“It concerns me that that may not have had an opportunity (to speak),” Menard said.

“We appreciate that, but the proposal is contrary to what’s allowed in the town of Kennebunk,” Morin replied. “We’re trying to expedite that process. And that was the purpose of having the item added.”

“We’re effectively doing a reset. So, there will be an opportunity to speak to the issue,” Morin said.

Selectmen Blake Baldwin and Christopher Cluff voted against rejecting the Fossett’s offer outright. Neither spoke about their decision at the Aug. 14 meeting. Attempts to reach Baldwin via email and phone were unsuccessful Monday.

Cluff said on Monday, “We were out to sell the parcel, we don’t want it to be just empty land,” Cluff said. “We had a clawback provision (saying) that if they were not able to secure a change in the zoning or whatever they needed to fulfill their presentation, that we got it back.”

A key element of his vote, Cluff said, was that any ordinance change enabling construction of the mini-golf course — whether it be establishment of a contract zone, or a change to the definition of outdoor amusement parks in the existing ordinance — would have gone before voters.

A positive board vote would have simply allowed that process to go forward, with “the onus being on the developers” to woo voters for the final word, Cluff said.

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

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