On the far north end of Main Street in Damariscotta, the sound of construction fills the air as a Dollar General and Sherwin Williams paint store go up on land that housed a long-vacant motel.
A half-mile south, between Hannaford supermarket and the Lincoln County Rifle Club, is a quiet section of woods that Dan Catlin hopes will soon be just as busy.
Catlin, CEO of Commercial Properties in Portland, first approached town officials last year about the 11-acre development at 435 Main St. It would include a bank, some service businesses and retail in three buildings, for a total of 30,000 square feet. Catlin is the developer of much of the Topsham Fair Mall and other projects.
He introduced the plan in April at a Planning Board meeting. It was the same meeting the board approved the Lisciotti Development Corp.'s 7,500-square-foot Dollar General and 4,500-square-foot Sherwin Williams.
The Lisciotti project, which received several waivers on parking and other issues, though, didn't sit well with area residents. A petition drive followed, and in November town voters will decide whether to approve a moratorium on any development larger than 2,500 square feet — a move aimed at giving the town time to determine how it wants to handle commercial development.
After a year of careful groundwork, for the first time in his development career, Catlin is suddenly in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Damariscotta is the kind of Maine village people come from out of state to visit. Its picture-postcard harbor on the Damariscotta River borders a three-block downtown of brick and clapboard buildings. Businesses downtown range from a coffee shop and book store to the state's first Reny's department store.
The town's 2014 comprehensive plan update stresses that protection of the town's character is a top goal. “While change has been inevitable the residents hold to the belief that 'Better, not bigger' is the proper path,” the plan says.
The north end of Main Street, where Route 1B angles back toward U.S. Route 1, is a designated commercial corridor. Retail, light industrial and restaurant businesses should be developed there, but “only when the tone of the area is protected,” the plan says.
Protecting the town's character is something residents — not only in Damariscotta, but in towns down the Pemaquid peninsula — took seriously well before the 2014 plan update.
In 2006, the town approved a 35,000-square foot development cap, squashing a proposal for a 187,000-square foot Wal-Mart.
In 2008, the town was the subject of a “Community Heart & Soul” study, funded by the Shelburne, Vt.-based Orton Family Foundation. The study included opportunities for townsfolk to mold their vision of the future. The report that followed suggested limiting development and ensuring that the town remain walkable and maintain its village feel.
Then the recession hit.
In 2011, residents voted against adopting a form-based code, which focuses on a building's size and placement in relation to what's around it, intended to maintain a town's character.
Beginning in 2008, “Nothing much occurred here,” Town Manager Matt Lutkus says. “Suddenly, things have started to move.”
The development that includes Dollar General and Sherwin Williams, on the site of the long-vacant County Fair Motel at the corner of Main Street and Biscay Road, took many by surprise. Until developers asked to go before the planning board in February, the town office hadn't heard about the project, Lutkus says.
The planning board waived six stipulations of the site plan review ordinance when it approved the plan, including the required amount of parking spaces, and the requirement that parking not be in front of a building.
Resident Rosa Ergas, one of those behind the recent petition drive, says, “People were really upset.” Many felt it happened too fast for much public engagement.
“It galvanized people,” she says. “It was really important to slow the process down.”
Lutkus says that the two proposals coming up at once, “contributed to the sense that things were happening really rapidly.”
Residents are concerned about ordinances being adhered to, but also that the spirit of the Heart & Soul report and comprehensive plan will be followed, Ergas says. Our Town Damariscotta, a loose group of peninsula residents that drove the Wal-Mart opposition 12 years before, became active again.
Selectmen in June formed a Planning Advisory Committee in June to look at the town's land use regulations.
At the same time, the moratorium movement began. If approved Nov 7, it will be retroactive to June and continue to Dec. 4, with an option for selectmen to extend it another six months if they believe an emergency exists.
By the town manager's account, Commercial Properties approached its development with plenty of time for discussion, “doing everything right.”
“They came in to talk with us early on,” Lutkus says. “They asked if this was something we'd like to see in town and we said 'yes.'”
After concerns were raised at an August public hearing, Catlin says he's made adjustments to facades, increased landscaping and added sidewalks. He's also working with the Salt Bay Sewer District and retailers, including Damariscotta Hardware, about extending the sewer system.
He estimates businesses at the complex would create about 70 full- or part-time jobs, and generate in the range of $60,000 in tax revenue a year.
Catlin has an option on the land and has put what he estimates at half its cost into work that includes surveying and approval from the Department of Environmental Protection and Department of Transportation.
The proposal includes a bank, some service businesses — possibly a dentist's office or insurance company — and retail. Aside from 20 parking spaces in front of the 5,500-square-foot building, the plan meets ordinance requirements. Retail would be small, such as a phone store.
“I get where they're coming from,” Catlin says. “But this is not a large retail development.”
Ergas, who is on the planning advisory committee, says residents would like to see mixed-use proposals that include affordable housing and office space, which the town lacks. Many would also like to see the character of downtown extend to the business corridor.
Lutkus agrees that the town wants to maintain character, and that lack of affordable housing, in particular, is a concern.
He's also spent his six years as town manager trying to recruit businesses in the wake of the recession.
“We need economic development, we need to increase the tax base, employment,” he says.
Lutkus says everyone, including the moratorium proponents, wants to see more development in town. “But we're saying, 'Yeah, there may be higher standards to meet if you want to come, but it will be well worth the added expense and effort,'” he says.
Catlin liked the wooded lot on Main Street because it's next door to a Hannaford supermarket, which is key for the type of tenants his development would draw.
“I get that they need housing,” Catlin says. “But this isn't the project for it.”
One of the waivers for the Dollar General-Sherwin Williams project allowed parking in front, on the street, as long as there was a landscaped buffer in between it and the street.
Catlin points out that aside from 20 spaces in front of the retail building, most of the parking at 435 Main St. is to the side, or behind the building nearest the street, and that he's also planning a landscaped buffer. The waiver for those 20 spaces is the only one he's asking for.
The Commercial Properties site is along a stretch that includes several larger businesses. Besides Hannaford, there is a Dollar General, Damariscotta Hardware, Yellowfront Grocery, Rising Tide Community Market and three lumber yards — Hancock, Viking and Hammond.
Ergas, of the planning advisory committee, says that some opponents of the moratorium point out that no other business on the Route 1B corridor has to adhere to the limits being sought.
“That's a terrible argument,” she says. “We have to start somewhere.”
Town officials say they want to see more business in town, but are also concerned about the sudden interest from developers and where it will take them.
“The Dollar General-Sherwin Williams construction is not inconsistent with other structures in the area, but it is inconsistent with what we'd like to see in the future,” Lutkus says. The 435 Main St. project, he says, is still in the early stages but the developer is working well with the town.
If the moratorium passes, it would be in effect until Dec. 4. If the selectmen vote to extend it, Catlin isn't sure what would happen next. For now, he says, he's operating “full steam ahead.”
Catlin first looked at the wooded lot at 435 Main St. a year ago. He has an option on it and has put what he estimates to be half the cost into getting it ready for development. He met with the town early on, has talked to abutters, has gotten state approvals.
He's never encountered this type of opposition. “Usually my developments are well-regarded,” he says. “People like the services they provide.”
The moratorium says the town is “suddenly under the threat of increased development pressure from large-scale retail development” that “could pose serious threats to the public health, safety and welfare.”
He doesn't believe his development poses those threats, and many of the issues are addressed in his plan.
“It was timing,” he says. “I was one meeting too late.”