The outlet stores on Route 1 in Kittery. Credit: Ioanna Raptis | Portsmouth Herald

KITTERY, Maine — The town’s working group on housing recently mailed letters to Route 1 and bypass property owners inviting them to join the conversation around affordable and workforce housing, alerting them of an upcoming exploration of potential zoning changes to encourage such development in those areas, ripe with large land lots.

This is the latest push by municipal officials to grow the conversation around housing availability, and appropriate locations for perhaps more dense projects around town. During the 15 months spent updating the town’s Comprehensive Plan, and an October 2018 workforce housing charrette held in the Foreside, it became very clear “Kittery zoning ordinance says you can’t build workforce and affordable housing,” said Town Council Vice Chairman Matt Brock, who also chairs the housing group.

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Kittery recently placed a strong focus on affordable housing, because while its population remains economically diverse, property values and rents continue to rise. Town Manager Kendra Amaral said she hears residents say Route 1 may be the location that has the capacity to handle a more dense project, but the conversation is layered, starting with the town’s economic diversity beginning to dwindle because of skyrocketing housing prices.

Examining zoning ordinances may be the next step in creating a more hospitable environment for affordable housing developers, and the Route 1 Bypass and Kittery Outlets stretch typically sport large land parcels. In past conversations, some officials said as brick-and-mortar stores fall victim to the online shopping phenomenon, Route 1 could be a key area for the town in achieving the necessary density for a viable affordable housing project.

[Kittery residents say they want ‘affordable housing that looks market rate’]

“We look at that as an important part of town where that type of development might be appropriate,” Brock said.

In the letter sent to developers last week, Amaral wrote the town sees “tremendous opportunity” for residential and mixed-use development in the areas in question.

Much of the bypass and outlets area are zoned commercial, and currently don’t allow residential development. Amaral said the bypass is also attractive because some of its parcels are even closer to being ready for development than those at the outlets.

[Kittery eyes recreation building for workforce housing project]

After the housing group announced in January it would take a look at the location of the former recreation building in Admiralty Village as a possibility for a workforce housing site, several residents attended Town Council meetings speaking against it, asserting the village was already too dense and that officials should look elsewhere.

While an engineer is still going to review possibilities for the Admiralty Village property, Brock said the housing group is “working on multiple fronts” to determine appropriate locations.

“There are large lots along the mall road and bypass with infrastructure, water, electric,” he said. “I think also a number of those properties really are in need of refurbishment. This is a way … to give property owners and developers some options on how they may expand the range of development they could do, and for a variety of purposes.”

[Kittery zoning ‘says you can’t build affordable housing,’ so town eyes changes]

It’s getting harder for businesses to attract and retain qualified workers in a tight rental market, Brock said. He noted someone who works at a retail counter or as a waitress may not want to commute from an hour away. Housing on Route 1 may offer more opportunities for employers to have their employees live in the community.

Brock said the housing group will gather input from property owners as an initial stage in the process and there will “certainly” be public hearings as things progress.

Amaral said no property owners contacted have expressed they’re “all in” for a potential housing project yet, but there is interest. “I think they are starting to see the town is serious in making something happen that’s viable,” she said.

[Kittery wants to allow more in-law apartments to help ease housing crunch]

Housing working group member Emily Flinkstrom, executive director of housing and social services nonprofit Fair Tide, said “it’s a big step in the right direction to begin exploring changes,” considering that many of the barriers to affordable housing development lie within the town’s current land use code.

“The goal is that these alterations will not only allow for, but incentivize the development of affordable housing,” she said. “The bypass and Route 1 are good places to start, and my hope is that the changes could be applied more broadly to other zones in the future.”