Orleans Gearing Up To Deal With Housing, Other Initiatives

By: Ed Maroney

With housing a pressing community need, some want the town to establish that use at the former Governor Prence properties. Others see a community center or a performance attraction as part of the mix. FILE PHOTO

ORLEANS The train is ready to leave the station on some big town projects, but the track ahead is lengthy and has some twists.

The first stop will be a completed community center feasibility study, where data and ideas will be taken on board to carry to the next destination: a point decision on whether to use the Governor Prence property for housing, a community center, a commercial attraction, or some combination of same. Meanwhile, on a parallel track, the planning board and a consultant will be chugging along toward a long-term strategy for downtown economic development.

Some want the Governor Prence train to run express to the housing solution. Others see the need for getting other interests on board to achieve wider community support.

The timetable for all these excursions was discussed by the select board, the planning board, and Director of Planning and Community Development George Meservey July 14. “It’s probably appropriate we coordinate and sequence the work,” Meservey said. “The precursor work I see is the community center feasibility study. The town allocated $35,000 for what’s really a space need analysis, land needs, building needs. We recommend you consider forming a task force that will have a quick, single task to complete this feasibility study with a professional consultant.”

Meservey and Town Administrator John Kelly drafted a charge for the task force that requires defining needs and programs “for people of all ages, abilities, and interests,” developing a conceptual design for a facility as well as preliminary staffing needs and cost projections, and presenting findings to the select board by March 1.

“The reason for the March 1 date is if we want to make changes in the capital plan,” Kelly said. The plan lists possible capital projects for the next five years.

After listening to public comment, the board changed the recommended membership on the task force to include a representative of the Orleans Cultural District and reserved another seat for the parent of a school-aged child. The seven-member group would also include single appointments by the select board, recreation advisory committee, planning board, and council on aging board of directors as well as one at-large member. The select board planned to vote on the charge last night (July 21). Meservey said he expected the work of the task force would be “almost done” when the town is ready to hire a facilitator to assist with the public process on determining the future use or uses of the Governor Prence properties.

“This is an important piece of property,” Meservey told the select board last week. “I recommend you consider hiring a facilitator in the fall. In the meantime, the first thing to do is to put some limitations on this study. What I suggested is considering housing, a community center, commercial development which may include an anchor store, attraction, or entertainment venue.” Mixed uses was another option. The board agreed with Meservey’s recommendation that uses such as a new fire station or library at the site should not be considered.

Meservey said housing and a community center were the top uses cited in a community survey with a high response rate and noted continuing interest in locating a community attraction, possibly a performance center, at the location. He said a facilitator could help bring various interests together in the same way such outside help eased the wastewater planning process.

Select board member Mark Mathison objected to a process he said amounted to “dragging this down the road three more years” by “talking about putting other commercial ventures into this place or mixed use or a community center. Where else can you get 14 units of housing on an acre, in walking distance to downtown shopping and Town Cove? The vast majority that voted for the purchase wanted it for housing.” Noting the high and fast-rising cost of housing in Orleans, Mathison said, “We talk about a community center. To serve whom, if nobody can live here? Or a performing arts center. Who will perform and who will sit in the audience if nobody can live here?… Is there anybody here who truly thinks a majority of the people of the town of Orleans don’t want to do anything but put housing there, because there’s such a critical need?”

“The planning board said if there were only housing they’d have trouble supporting it,” select board member Andrea Reed said, “so it’s not so clear-cut in my mind that the whole town sees it the way you do. That’s part of the reason the select board should keep control. People are passionate about how they’d like to see the site developed, but we are not at consensus.”

“Mark, I hear you, and to a large extent I’m with you,” Select Board Chair Mefford Runyon said. “I feel that as we presented this at town meeting, (we told) people they have an opportunity to participate in consensus-building on how that property will get used.”

“We can invite the public and have a study and see how to get the best use in mixed use with residences and age groups, maybe a small community center that can provide day care for families in this town,” Mathison said, “but we need to deal with the reality of where we are with housing. It’s critical and it’s getting worse. Dragging this thing out two or three more years serves no one.”

“Maybe five-and-a-half acres is enough land to do a couple of things,” Meservey said. “Fourteen units per acre is ample room for substantial housing development,” with enough room left over for home ownership options, including Habitat for Humanity homes, and possible other uses. “I’m reluctant to make a single recommendation until we’ve gone through a public process.”

“We do need to be sure to move along at a pace that meets the needs,” select board member Kevin Galligan said. “We need to get this moving, even if we don’t do the whole thing (right away).” He suggested that housing on the site could be the first priority while some of the land is reserved for other future uses.

The board agreed to take the lead position in the process and to seek funding for a facilitator at the October special town meeting.

Also last night, the board was to hear details of the town’s request for an extension to Aug. 16 of the closing date for purchase of the 5.5-acre Governor Prence properties. “The tenants have not left the commercial building,” Kelly said last week. “The 21E (environmental assessment) is not completed. The contents of the motel rooms have not been vacated.”

Town meeting appropriated funds to design a demolition plan for the properties. Kelly said the same body could be asked next May to fund that work. “I don’t want to own vacant buildings,” he said. “Only one insurance company will insure them, Lloyd’s of London. Vacant buildings are an attractive nuisance.”

Meservey touched briefly on the long-range downtown economic development plan, which town meeting funded at $60,000. “There will be a lot of outreach to business owners in this town,” he said. “Those are the ones who know what the issues are.” The consultant “will look at stats, demographics, and really rely on input from business owners. This is not a general outreach to residents of the town. We know what the general residents want. We are going to focus on the (businesses).”