SOUTHWEST HARBOR, Maine — Selectmen decided Tuesday against pursuing any townwide votes that would address residents’ concerns about the potential for a multiunit housing development.

But that doesn’t seem to have deterred a group of residents who want to change what the town allows for multiunit housing. They are collecting signatures in the hopes of holding a special town meeting without the selectmen’s endorsement, according to the group’s attorney.

The concerns have been prompted by a proposal from developer Jeff Crafts to build 40 houses in a subdivision called Village at Ocean’s End. Crafts intends to connect pairs of homes in the development with underground, concrete utility tunnels so that together two dwellings can be counted as one unit.

Crafts’ plan, which was approved by the planning board last month, effectively doubles the development density limit that many residents and local officials had thought was allowed by the town’s land use ordinance. Many residents want to enact a development moratorium on multiunit housing and to change the ordinance in order to prevent developments such as Crafts’ project from being built.

A petition to have the ordinance changed was rejected unanimously Tuesday by the Board of Selectmen, which had concerns about the way the proposed referendum question in the petition was worded, according to Dorr “Skip” Wilson, chairman of the board.

Part of the wording would have made the ordinance change retroactive to Jan. 1, 2009, before Craft’s proposal had been approved. Selectmen were concerned that retroactively changing the definition to affect Crafts’ project may be improper, Wilson said.

Bangor attorney Andrew Hamilton, representing Crafts at the Tuesday night meeting, told the board that such language in the petition would unfairly discriminate against his client.

“We think it’s getting to that point,” Hamilton said.

Selectmen also voted 3-2 Tuesday against scheduling a special town meeting so voters could consider enacting a 180-day development moratorium on multiunit housing.

Wilson and fellow Selectman Ralph Dunbar voted in favor of scheduling a special town meeting on Jan. 12, 2010, but Trudy Bickford, Kristin Hutchins and Berten Willey opposed it.

Wilson said there is a potential for unwanted, high-density development to come to Southwest Harbor before the ordinance can be changed. Many residents have raised concerns about the density that the ordinance appears to allow, he said.

“I think 180 days is nothing,” Wilson said of the delay developers would face. “I think it’s only fair to do this.”

But Hutchins said she didn’t think a moratorium was warranted because she didn’t think the town would be adversely affected if development were allowed to continue as usual.

“I don’t like it,” she said of the moratorium idea. “I don’t think it’s an emergency. I think we’re beginning to waste everybody’s time, especially ours.”

Bickford also said she didn’t think selectmen needed to schedule a special town meeting. If residents really want to pursue a moratorium, they can do so without getting the board’s blessing, she said.

“Let them go do what they want and leave us out of it,” Bickford said.

Lynne Williams, a Bar Harbor attorney who represents residents who are concerned about high-density development, said Wednesday that her clients intend to do just that.

“It wasn’t surprising,” she said of the selectmen votes Tuesday night. “We expected it.”

Williams said her clients are circulating a petition to schedule a special town meeting so voters could decide whether to change the town’s definition of multiunit housing and to enact a moratorium. If they collect enough signatures, such a meeting can be scheduled by a notary public instead of by the Board of Selectmen, she said.

Williams said only about 90 signatures of local registered voters need to be collected in order to force such a vote. On each of two other similar petitions that previously have been rejected by selectmen, there have been about 120 signatures, she said.

In the meantime, two appeals of the planning board’s approval of Crafts’ project are being pursued, Williams said. She is representing two abutters who are challenging the process by which the project was approved. Another group of residents who have a different attorney are challenging whether Crafts’ project really is allowed under the town’s land use ordinance, she said.

Avatar photo

Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....