FRANKLIN COUNTY – In recognition of a housing crisis impacting the communities along the Route 27 corridor in northern Franklin County, a grassroots group of volunteers met together to find solutions.
The Western Maine Mountain Housing Coalition was formed of community members and volunteers from Kingfield, Carrabassett Valley, Wyman Township, Coplin Plantation, and Stratton-Eustis. The coalition received support from each community in a one-of-a-kind partnership to find solutions to the regional issue.
A study was commissioned by the coalition and conducted by Camoin Associates out of New York. This study is a 54-page document outlining the gaps and needs for affordable, workforce housing. Based on this study and other conversations at the community level, the coalition is actively working to develop workforce housing units that will provide necessary space for the local workforce.
At this point, the coalition has a purchase and sale agreement in place on a seven-acre parcel of land in Kingfield, near the Dollar General store on Route 27. Work is currently underway to draft plans for apartment complexes on the lot and develop the contract zoning for the project.
This proposal, along with others that may come down the road, is outside of the regular zoning ordinances for the town. In June, residents of the town of Kingfield adopted a new ‘contract zoning’ ordinance. In essence, the contract zoning process produces a contract that outlines the zoning changes necessary to complete a specific project, and if the contract is approved by both the town planning board and select board, it then goes to a vote of the townspeople in a town meeting. If the townspeople agree that the project meets their goals and vision for the community and are willing to approve the necessary changes to the zoning for the specific project, and approve the contract presented, then the project goes back to the planning board for the full design and permitting processes. The contract zoning process requires a number of public hearings and informational meetings to allow the community to provide feedback, and ultimately the community members will vote on the project before it goes through the regular planning board process for permitting and approval.
The first public hearing related to this contract zoning proposal will be held on Tuesday, September 19, 2023 at 6 p.m. The Kingfield Planning Board is hosting the public hearing.
The coalition is also working to purchase property in Carrabassett Valley and Stratton-Eustis and is looking to do a similar process to build workforce housing units.
What is workforce housing?
The coalition states, “In the early phase, our properties will be multifamily buildings owned and managed by Kingfield-based Western Maine Mountain Housing, with renters and buyers who have been vetted as active members of the area workforce. In later phases, we hope to develop and sell single-family homes. We are committed to maintaining attractive, well-managed properties that make living locally realistic for the families and individuals who help our towns thrive.”
Concerns have been raised in the community about the effectiveness of workforce housing units such as apartment complexes, and about the difference between low-income housing and workforce housing. The housing units will accept housing vouchers – they cannot legally refuse a voucher – but Executive Director Mark Green has said that the coalition intends to advertise available housing units through employers, and to include a set of standards for renters to follow that would hopefully address some of the issues that can be associated with low-income or affordable housing units. This development is designed to support the working families and individuals in the region. Additionally, while the project in Kingfield may receive federal funding to help cover costs of construction, Green said that the particular funding source currently discussed – congressionally directed spending, supported by Senator Susan Collins – is much more flexible than other funding sources.
“We have got to complete a project that the community buys into,” Green said.
Green shared in a public informational, held in Kingfield in June, that the coalition is exploring models used in other communities, notably Island Workforce Housing in Deer Isle and Stonington.
If the coalition cannot provide answers to the questions and concerns from the community, a project may not be approved in a town meeting vote, so it is in the best interests of the coalition to produce a quality project that addresses as many concerns as possible.
Why is this necessary?
Data from the Camoin study and Western Maine Mountain Housing indicates that with the price of housing increasing as much as 25-40 percent in the last few years, fewer than one out of every five homes is affordable to a worker earning the area median income of $53,000. For renters, just 4% of the area housing stock is available as non-seasonal rental housing. This has resulted in families leaving the region and business owners reporting difficulties in hiring and retaining quality staff. The Camoin study found that many area workers commute more than 25 miles from their home to their jobs. The coalition believes these trends stunt the area’s vitality, generational diversity, and economic growth.
The problem ranges from large employers like Sugarloaf, which purchased and remodeled the Herbert Hotel in Kingfield to house employees during the 2022-2023 winter season, and Saddleback, which is in the process of building employee housing units on the mountain, to small businesses such as restaurants and shops.
One board member of Western Maine Mountain Housing, Tim Generncer, has shared in several public meetings that he is doing his part to solve the housing crisis: he has two local employees living in his home. They happen to be his adult children who cannot find alternative housing options.
The Camoin study shared findings that over half of young adults (age 18-34) living in the study area live with someone other than a partner or spouse, many with their parents. Many of these underhoused young workers would prefer to live on their own if affordable options were available.
While housing challenges are not unique to the western mountains of Maine, the rural nature of the region offers additional challenges. Some employees at the Stratton Lumber facility in Stratton commute from their homes as far away as Skowhegan. Additional hours on the road incurs increased fuel and maintenance costs for vehicles, and carries a cost in other ways too, such as time lost with family and loved ones.
The housing coalition decided not to wait for solutions from the state or federal government and to instead work together to find local solutions. Their goal is to make homes for local employees to settle roots in the community.
To that end, the coalition received $308,000 from the Franklin County Commissioners in American Rescue Plan Act funds to use as seed money and to help secure matching grants. The group has obtained a 501(c)3 non-profit status that allows them to accept donations and apply for other grant funding. The coalition has applied for congressionally directed spending with Senator Collins’ office and that request has received preliminary approval from the appropriations committee, but still has to go through the full approval process.
What happens next?
The coalition does not promise to have all the answers. They are proposing solutions to problems. Other solutions may exist, such as workforce housing developments on Sugarloaf Mountain; those conversations are underway as well.
Many community concerns and questions have not yet been answered: how effective is an affordable housing apartment complex going to be? How can the coalition ensure that renters are being good neighbors? What is the long-term plan to manage and support these efforts?
For residents in Kingfield, which is sometimes called a service center community for Carrabassett Valley and Sugarloaf, there are questions: why here? Kingfield and Carrabassett Valley share the same zip code with the post office housed in Kingfield, along with other community assets such as the banks, hardware store, and laundromat. Some residents of Kingfield have expressed feelings of frustration, saying that Kingfield is handling Sugarloaf’s problem. Members of the committee have shared an alternate viewpoint, that the problem is not just Sugarloaf, but regional, and that the solutions should be regional as well. The coalition has said that the parcel in Kingfield was simply the piece that became available first, and it is not the only project on the list. Questions and concerns continue to be discussed among the community.
The project in Kingfield is in the early stages of contract zoning. The upcoming public hearing is one of the first steps. If the contract for special zoning is granted in a town meeting vote, then the project can move through the regular planning board permitting processes. The coalition will continue to work on additional projects in other communities as well.
More information, as well as a PDF of the Camoin report on the housing situation in the Route 27 Corridor, is available at whcwmm.org