News Feature

Originally published in Castine Patriot, January 24, 2013
Housing needs in Castine
Questions accumulate as dialogue on Castine housing needs expands

by Sharon Bray

At their January 22 meeting selectmen began a discussion about how to provide more affordable housing. They picked up the subject again at their meeting with Maine Maritime Academy officers in the monthly town-gown meeting Wednesday morning.

As promised at their December meeting, selectmen listened to Doug Coos, member of the former Comprehensive Plan Implementation subcommittee on affordable housing and subcommittee Chairman Jack Macdonald.

Coos also owns the town’s only mobile home park located on the Shore Road off-neck. As he had done previously, Coos asked selectmen to convene a work session on housing.

Macdonald talked about research covered in a written report, including information from the towns of Mount Desert Island and Islesboro.

The committee would like to see Castine develop a locally appropriate model to address the lack of housing for lower income families, according to Macdonald.

Coos told selectmen that when a tenant does not have rent money, he tells them to pay for their prescriptions, buy food or meet other needs and work out the rent later. Sometimes, Coos said, he provides help out of his finances as town help is rarely available. “I’m ready to shift that responsibility back to the town.”

Selectman Gus Basile asked if they were talking about “affordable” or “low-income” housing.

The town needs to discuss “housing” without necessarily differentiating between the two, Coos responded.

At the December meeting, Coos had given selectmen copies of the “housing goal” report and plan calling for formation of a joint town and MMA housing committee. The report outlined support for “development of affordable housing,” including accessory and duplex apartments, multi-family units, and cluster developments.

This week Coos said Macdonald had never been given an opportunity to present that report from the subcommittee before selectmen disbanded the Comprehensive Plan Implementation Committee (CPIC) and consequently all its subcommittees.

Nonetheless, Macdonald suggested the housing committee resume its work.

People in town, Macdonald said, expressed concerns about any new development “taking away from the ambience of the town.” More recent proposals had focused on expanding an existing resource: the trailer park.

Coos told selectmen he could replace a number of existing mobile homes with one-story modular units on full foundations. He said he would need the support of the town before he could seek financial help to begin such a project.

The expanded function of the park would also require “a whole new zone under the zoning ordinance,” noted Town Manager Dale Abernethy.

Chairman of the former CPIC zoning subcommittee, Bob Friedlander, said state law already has rules for affordable housing and supplied the reference to Abernethy.

During discussion of who needs the lower cost housing and involvement of MMA, Basile said they should not be looking at students but at faculty and staff who would contribute more to the community.

“I have students with families on my property,” Coos said, adding that a number of them participate in the fire department and other local organizations.

Although housing was not on the agenda for the following morning’s meeting at MMA, Selectman Peter Vogell said he would bring it up.

By Wednesday morning, “housing” had appeared on printed agendas. MMA President Bill Brennan said he had, as promised last month, done research on other towns with students who rent property off campus. He had a letter in process to share with selectmen what he learned, including copies of relevant ordinances.

“How do we get the word out to real estate agents and property owners?” asked Basile.

The academy “has tools to deal with students,” answered Brennan, but not to deal with private property owners.

Coos was invited to address the town-gown meeting and told them he hopes to see “an interface” between the town and MMA.

According to Vice President Jeff Loustaunau, several years ago the academy did a survey of faculty and staff to try to learn more about housing needs. At the time, they surveyed employees who were already established in area communities and not interested in moving to Castine.

If they had a way to ask potential new families “what would draw them to town,” the answers could be quite different, said Vice President Ellie Willmann.

However, neither Loustaunau nor Willmann could find copies of the old survey.

As the group talked about what questions to ask and of whom, Castine’s Economic Development Consultant Sue Walsh said she has already developed and is fine-tuning a survey that should cover all the bases.

After the meeting, Walsh explained that the survey asks what current and prospective Castine residents want from the town, including housing. She said she plans to use the Internet to distribute the survey to people affiliated with the academy and may need other ways to reach all Castine property owners—including landlords—as well as rental residents. She said she will work with Macdonald, other town officials and MMA representatives as she completes the survey.