Three Select Board members voted 3-2 March 23 for Town Manager Audra Caler to negotiate a purchase and sales agreement with developer Michael Mullins for 10 or 12 apartments to be built on the tannery lot in combination with workshops for makers and entrepreneurs and a barn for a year-round farmers' market.


Tannery lot development proposals

Northland/Dovetail — New construction of a three-story building with 35 or more apartments, with rents affordable to households with incomes from $25,000 to $45,000. A home for the Camden Farmers' Market, landscaping improvements and a lot with parking for one vehicle for each unit are included. Purchase price of $85,000 offered. Requires waiver of zoning requiring ground floor commercial use. Developers requested 75% break on property tax for 30 years. Affordability of the apartments is linked to long-term government financing and is guaranteed for several decades.

Original Cranesport proposal — New construction of a village with 19 workshops for entrepreneurs at the early-stage of product development, with annual lease around $3,600 for the basic model. Also to be developed are a large barn for a year-round Farmers' Market, public restrooms and landscaping improvements. Purchase price of $250,000 offered, with optional use of those funds to match a river restoration grant. Initial plans were to build the barn and about one-third of the workshops. Workshop buildings are not heated, but can be renovated by the lessee to include heat.

Friends of the Park — A community park developed through private fundraising, and use of a grant obtained by the town to remediate environmental pollution on the lot. Initial plans include a picnic area, home for the Farmers' Market, playground for preschool-age children and a bicycle pump track for young riders. Longer term plans may include a pickleball court, a pavilion for the Market and an ice-skating rink, depending on fundraising. The proposal asks the town to retain ownership of the land.

Mid-Coast Habitat for Humanity — New construction of three, affordable single-family homes. The non-profit organization for the donation of three 9,000 square foot lots, and a zoning waiver similar to Northland/Dovetail. The homes are affordable in perpetuity.

The Cranesport/Mullins purchase and sales agreement is being prepared for a June vote.

The board's deadline to finalize whatever goes on the ballot is April 20.

Board Chairman Bob Falciani, Vice Chairwoman Alison McKellar and Taylor Benzie voted in favor of Caler preparing the agreement and warrant article.

While voting for Cranesport, McKellar expressed her wish for housing to be built on a different site.

Jenna Lookner and Marc Ratner voted against moving the new Cranesport proposal to voters in June.

Lookner and Ratner said none of the proposals were ready to send to voters. Each wanted to see more work done on proposals before recommending one to voters for a November vote.

Several people who continue to support development of a park disagreed that the new Cranesport proposal is right for the former tannery lot.

No concept plans or illustrations for the updated Cranesport plan, or detailed descriptions and estimated development cost of the housing, were provided to board members. All of these were required from developers in the request for proposal to develop the site.

On March 9, board members, except for Ratner, signaled interest in both Northland/Dovetail and Cranesport proposals. They also talked about the importance of addressing housing needs for Camden's median income range of around $65,000.

Board members had more questions for Northland and Cranesport developers, and asked Caler and Planning and Development Director Jeremy Martin to get the answers by their March 23 meeting.

On March 23, Caler summed up the board members' question for Northland as whether there was an opportunity to decrease the number of apartment units.

The big question for Cranesport was whether it would be feasible to incorporate housing into the proposal, she said.

Falciani asked Caler to summarize a memo she wrote for the board with the responses from Northland and Cranesport.

Northland/Dovetail is not able to reduce the number of units in the building for a number of reasons, she explained. The project is now facing a funding gap of about $1 million due to changes in federal funding for affordable housing in Knox County. One measure to help close that gap would be to include market rate rentals in the building, which would mean they need to build around 50 apartment units, including 30 units with affordable rents.

Mullins will consider amending his proposal to include 10 to 12 dwelling units on the northwest corner of this site, according to the memo. These units would be contained in five or six 2.5 story row-house style buildings. However, he would no longer offer the $250,000 purchase price, as those funds would be invested in the site, she said.

Mullins confirmed March 29 that he is still offering $250,000 for the tannery lot, and he is not seeking tax increment financing funds from the town of Camden.

On March 24 he described the housing he is proposing to build as “missing middle housing.” It often combines two living units in the footprint of a single family home. Adding housing to his development plan for the tannery lot would reduce the number of workshops to 14, eliminating the five larger workshops, he said.

Based on a guideline of spending 30% of gross income on housing costs, he said he is interested in working with a "band of affordability" for monthly rent in the range of $1,500 to $2,000.

Caler made it clear that if board members want any housing developed, regardless of which project they choose, it requires “more than entering into a purchase and sales agreement and conveying that property over to a developer."

Developing affordable housing requires strong local, state and federal partnerships, she said. Zoning changes, tax incentives and credit enhancement agreements are concepts the board has to "get comfortable with."

Board members asked Caler what would appear on the ballot, and when the purchase and lease agreement would have to be finalized.

Caler explained that a short warrant item would ask voters to approve the purchase and sale agreement with the developer. Similar to when ordinance changes are voted on, the text of the agreement would not be on the warrant, but would be available to read, and would be up to each voter to look into. She indicated it would be disingenuous to send the warrant article to a public vote without finalizing the purchase and sales agreement by April 20.

Leading up to the vote, board members talked about what was driving their decisions.

Benzie said he is encouraged the Mullins' proposal provides Camden with "meaningful affordable housing so your average person can find a place to live." He described "the most underserved in terms of housing stock" as in between subsidized housing and the typical $350,000 home.

The Cranesport proposal "has a lot of exciting pieces to it," he said. He sees "potential and opportunity for it to become a unique place, which Camden does not have right now." Benzie does not believe most people in Camden want a park on the lot.

At an earlier meeting, Lookner had asked Northland/Dovetail developers if they could provide affordable apartments for households in the $65,000 range, which she sees as a typical income for people looking for apartments in Camden.

On March 23, she pointed out "that two people, making $15/hour are over the income level" for the Northland apartments.

"If their proposal addressed the needs a little more thoroughly it would be a bigger draw," Lookner said.

While "the Cranesport proposal is really exciting," she "has some reservations about being able to execute it, the developer having different goals than the town does and how much willingness there is to change things to work with us."

Ratner said he is "not comfortable with rushing to get a vote in by June because we have to make a decision in a week or so. Maybe by November things could be different."

He sees the need for affordable housing, but does not believe Northland’s proposal fits the site, or the Millville neighborhood.

"The group of people we have heard the most over time has been people saying they want a park in their neighborhood. Are we trying to shoehorn something in their neighborhood that doesn’t fit the character?" he asked.

While interested in Cranesport, he is not yet "comfortable with the way its laid out and the way it would be developed."

"It’s really important to put something out to voters," McKellar said. She talked about the usefulness of the process, "because we’ve actually been able to see proposals, what can be financed and what can really happen."

She voted to move the Cranesport proposal to voters, while expressing numerous reservations.

McKellar agreed with the idea "of trying to force some housing into the tannery site," but sees commercial development as more appropriate due to the contamination there. From an ecological perspective she thinks the proposal creates too much development, and wants to see more green space added. She expressed hope that Mullins' original proposal can be developed on the tannery lot, and the $250,000 purchase price used to spur affordable housing elsewhere in town.

"We owe it to voters to bring something forward," Falciani said. "Both proposals are reactive to town’s needs. I won’t support a motion to table this discussion and not to pick one of the two."

Nancy Caudle-Johnson, who spearheaded the creation and protection of the Riverwalk on the boundary of the property, reminded Board members it was created by townspeople who put it on the ballot through a citizen's referendum.

"When the Riverwalk was proposed by the community in 2009, the Select Board at the time universally disliked the idea and refused to place it on the ballot," she said.

The Riverwalk and easement to protect it were placed on the ballot through a referendum process and "were overwhelmingly approved by voters. Now everyone thinks the Riverwalk is a great idea," she said.

Stephen Gold, who supports the Friends of the Park proposal, said he is appalled that in the course of this whole process none of the town staff "has examined the cost to the town of any particular project, especially Northland." He asked what costs will be faced with the new Cranesport proposal.

"I think that’s a sort of ridiculous thing to say about staff given Mr. Gold is speaking in favor of the tannery park proposal," Caler said. "If you had even a little more information about costs on that, that might have been a viable proposal."

James Bennett spoke on behalf of the Friends of Tannery Park. The tannery property, despite its current neglected condition and lack of improvements, has been used as a park by the community of Camden for many years, he said.

He listed features that make it an ideal place for a park, including ease of access because it is level, open and accessible to people with mobility limitations, and the home of the popular and well-attended Camden Farmers Market. The organization is moving forward with a 501c3 LLC designation so it can "raise funds and seek grants that can be used to assist the town with either environmental clean up or future maintenance and improvements of the site."