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August 8, 2018

Facebook poll highlights pro-and-con views surrounding $40M Saco Island project

Courtesy / Saulnier Development
Courtesy / Saulnier Development
The Waters at Saco Island project includes condominiums, retail space, a hotel, restaurant, marinas and river walk.

Developers of The Waters Saco Island project have turned to Facebook as their project nears votes not only by the Saco Planning Board but also the Saco River Corridor Commission.

While those responding to a Survey Monkey poll published on the social media site represent a small segment of the region's population, their comments highlight the clash between the need for economic development in the area and concerns about the environment and traffic.

The $40 million development, proposed by J&B Partners LLC includes 92 condominiums, 10,000 square feet of retail space, a small boutique hotel, a restaurant and two small marinas on 5.8 undeveloped acres. The developer is Bernard Saulnier Jr., of Saulnier Development and the hotel would be developed by James Brady, who developed The Press Hotel in Portland.

The site is along the Saco River near where it empties into the Atlantic, on the east side of the island, which is divided by Route 9.

The 123 Facebook users responding to a three-day poll on The Waters page largely approve of the project. A Mainebiz request for more information about the poll and its goals wasn't responded to by deadline.

The poll targeted residents of Biddeford and Saco, according to a news release from the developer, and asked: "Would you like to see The Waters development proposed for the east side of Saco Island go forward, or do you prefer the status quo?"

Of the 123 people who responded, 96 answered "yes" to the question, which was 78.05%; 14, or 11.38% responded "no"; 13, or 10.57% were undecided. The poll was available on Facebook from Aug. 2 through Aug. 5.

The two cities have a combined population of more than 40,000 residents.

The plan goes before the Saco Planning Board on Tuesday, Aug. 21.

Because the development also includes significant public access, it requires approval by the Saco River Corridor Commission. That vote is slated for Wednesday, Aug. 22. The 20-member commission last month tabled a vote on the project. The commission includes representatives from Maine municipalities along the river, which has headwaters in New Hampshire's White Mountains.

Economic impact vs. environment

Courtesy / Saulnier Development
Courtesy / Saulnier Development
The concept plan for a Saco Island development.

Those responding to the poll could leave a comment — which is what 53 respondents, or 43%, did. The names of commenters and where they're from wasn't provided.

Six of the comments were against the project and another eight stressed further study or other considerations. The rest were largely in favor.

Positive comments touted the economic impact:

  • "Looking forward to enjoying what will be a wonderful addition to the Biddeford Saco area. Perhaps it will give a reason for people to stop, shop, and dine instead of driving through both towns."
  • "Saco needs this to boost its tax revenue hot relief against rising TA costs. It will also bring added jobs and boost economy. A no brainer!"

Negative comments stressed environmental and traffic concerns:

  • "Of all the places to put condos and various other businesses, along the river is the wrong direction. We need to preserve our waterways and the living organism, salmon etc that cannot survive without a clean river. People can survive in a condo on a different tract of land, and well it might not be as exalted as 'on the river' but I'm sure they will be just fine-salmon not so much. There are soooo many empty storefronts in both Biddo and Saco — use them!"
  • "The project has not fully accounted for taking strides to adopt some of the nation's top standards for sustainable building. It is inexcusable for new developments, particularly ones of this scope, to not adopt more advanced technologies to achieve or near net zero energy. In the case of this project, its proximity to the water should only up the ante for sustainability. Secondly, there are some major concerns with traffic. This development would have residents and visitors of substantial scale. There are already major backups in this area."

The majority of those responding to the Facebook poll, 71, were from Saco; 40 were from Biddeford, one respondent was from Alfred, one from Scarborough, two from Arundel, three from Kennebunk and five from Old Orchard Beach.

Significant public access

The development would be on vacant waterfront land that's now largely inaccessible to the public.

Once industrial, the land has been vacant for decades. A 2006 plan to develop it was halted by the recession. The current owner bought the land for $1.5 million last year.

On The Waters Facebook page, an Aug. 3 post highlights the condition of the site and its potential for development:

"We have cleaned up the used hypodermic needles, the homeless encampments and related trash. (In the nice weather, however, we notice trespassers and their trash are returning.) A development with significant public access is proposed, but it requires approval by the Saco River Corridor Commission. A second option is to leave the land in its present condition. The third option is a completely different use with no approval by the commission required, and thus no public access.Whatever the outcome, these photos clearly reveal the parcel's industrial past, and ample evidence of graffiti and sustained "misadventures." They also reveal the incredibly strategic location between the downtown districts of Biddeford and Saco. Most Saco-Biddeford residents have just whizzed by this land in a car without an inkling of what's actually there."

Developers said in an April news release that the project will make available to the general public water views and direct access to the Saco River that the vast majority of Biddeford and Saco residents, for generations, have never enjoyed.

In April, Craig Pendleton, executive director the Biddeford-Saco-Old Orchard Beach Chamber of Commerce, said the defining attribute of the project is its heavy emphasis on the Saco River, and the public's access to it.

"Look at the renderings; they're all about the river," Pendleton said. "That's so smart. What has previously been a desolate no-man's-land will now open up sweeping vistas of the Saco River. The economic rebound that these two cities have been making since 2012 has wisely used the river's natural draw to encourage economic revitalization. This development continues that in spades, and let me tell you, when this project is finished these two cities will never be the same. What a gem."

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