“Affordable housing” might be a pejorative term to some, but members of a working group appointed by the town of Harpswell say the community’s lack of it could lead to a host of future problems, including economic stagnation.
The Affordable Housing Working Group has been tasked with developing a set of recommendations for how to diversify Harpswell’s housing stock beyond spacious summer homes and family compounds. But to do that, it first needs to find out which possible solutions existing residents could live with.
The group is considering a variety of ways to promote the creation of more modestly priced living spaces, but members say they don’t yet know how the community feels about each of them. Also, they are hoping some residents might have fresh ideas to share.
“The goal is to really try and reach out to the different interests in the community and give them an opportunity at the beginning of the process to help the working group understand (what residents want),” said Mark Eyerman, Harpswell’s town planner.
Harpswell’s elected officials are trying to do their part to promote more diverse living spaces. The Select Board recently hired a consultant to help the town explore the issue of affordable housing.
Ivy Vann, of Peterborough, New Hampshire, will help the working group complete a study, according to a memo from Eyerman. The memo describes Vann as a “one-person planning firm” with a wide range of experience.
But working group members say they are loath to push through any new initiatives without first securing buy-in from the community.
If nothing else, just getting a sense of what the term “affordable housing” means to various residents would benefit the working group, Eyerman said.
“If you ask people, ‘What do you mean by affordable housing?’ and there are 50 people, there probably are 25 different visions of what affordable housing in Harpswell is,” Eyerman said.
The group plans to host a handful of “listening sessions” in late July and early August in different areas of town to interact with community members and hear their ideas and concerns.
Dates, times and locations for the listening sessions are as follows:
– 5-6:30 p.m., Sunday, July 23, at Bailey Island Library Hall, 2167 Harpswell Islands Road.
– 4-5:30 p.m., Monday, July 24, at Cundy’s Harbor Community Hall, 837 Cundy’s Harbor Road.
– 6:15-7:45 p.m., Monday, July 24, at Orr’s Island Schoolhouse, 1594 Harpswell Islands Road.
– 7-8:30 p.m., Tuesday, July 25, at Elijah Kellogg Church, 917 Harpswell Neck Road.
The sessions will be informal gatherings in which participants can stop by and engage with working group members at their convenience without having to sit through time-consuming speeches or presentations, Eyerman said, adding that town officials will update the community when more details become available.
It will be challenging to develop a realistic and workable roadmap for the development of more affordable housing in Harpswell, said Bob Gaudreau, a working group member and retired developer. The group is going to need all the help it can get, he said.
Gaudreau said he favors solutions that don’t rely on big, new developments that the town’s freshwater table likely couldn’t sustain. But there are other options, he said, such as promoting and incentivizing long-term rentals instead of short-term ones, which could be done through fees, taxes, and/or rules and restrictions.
Another possibility would be the formation of a nonprofit housing trust — or a partnership with an existing one — that could apply for grants to develop smaller projects such as workforce accessory dwelling units, duplexes or small-lot homes. It might also require some zoning changes or the easing of certain development restrictions and fees, Gaudreau said.
But none of those options will fly if residents are dead set against them, he said. That’s the sort of thing the working group needs to find out, and it only has until Sept. 1 to make its recommendations to town officials in time for them to be incorporated into the next comprehensive plan.
Working group member Courtenay Snellings, who also sits on the Harpswell Planning Board, said she is interested in potential solutions the working group hasn’t thought of. She hopes residents will bring their own “outside-the-box” ideas to the group’s listening sessions.
But for the working group to harness the community’s collective knowledge, residents need to see the value in participating and show up to the listening sessions, Snellings said.
The alternative is to accept a grim future in which Harpswell’s population continues to age, more workers decide it’s not worth the cost to commute from afar, and services and amenities degrade and diminish, she warned.
“I know it’s not going to be an easy fix,” Snellings said. “We need to think of things that no one has considered.”
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