Midcoast Habitat for Humanity has proposed a subdivision for Talbot Avenue in Rockland. Credit: Lauren Abbate / BDN

ROCKLAND, Maine ― A development that would bring 13 affordable housing units to Rockland has received initial approval from the city’s planning board.

Midcoast Habitat for Humanity initially proposed the Talbot Avenue development in late 2020, but getting to the final approval has been a process marked by plan changes and delay.

The most recent hurdle came last month, when the city’s wastewater treatment director notified the planning board that he would not issue a sewer permit for the development unless a needed stormwater separation project was completed near the Talbot Avenue site to prevent overflow of the sewer system during heavy rain.

After the developer committed to finding a way to complete the stormwater project — estimated to cost about $200,000 — the Rockland Planning Board gave approval to Habitat’s preliminary plan Tuesday night by a vote of 3-1. The planning board will undertake a final plan review next month. 

“I wouldn’t hold up this project for $200,000. I would find a way to make it happen,” Midcoast Habitat for Humanity Director Tia Anderson said. “I definitely wouldn’t hold this up any longer than it’s been held up.”

Developers and supporters of the project say it will add needed housing to the local market as the region and state continue to grapple with an affordable housing crisis.

When the project was initially proposed in 2020, it included plans for eight approximately 500-square-foot one-bedroom homes and three duplexes, with a two-bedroom unit on one side and a three-bedroom unit on the other. Both the small homes and duplexes would be rental units managed by the Knox County Homeless Coalition. The proposal also included four single family homes which would be sold to qualifying Habitat for Humanity applicants.

But bringing the project to fruition has taken longer than developers expected.

The development needed passage of a zoning change that reduced the minimum square footage requirement for buildings on the approximately 10-acre lot. Rockland City Council approved this change last summer.

Since the project was proposed, it has received pushback from neighbors who fear it would worsen existing stormwater drainage issues in the area. City residents also expressed concern it would hurt the wildlife habitat on the property, which includes wetlands.

In response to the stormwater concerns, Habitat for Humanity scaled back the scope of the development last fall. In the revised plans, one of the duplexes, two of the small homes and one of the Habitat for Humanity homes have been eliminated. This reduced the total number of housing units from 18 to 13. The smaller project will have less of an impact on the property’s wetlands, which comprise about half of the lot.

In addition to minimizing disruption to the wetlands portion of the property, developers are incorporating stormwater runoff management practices on the site, including the use of a type of pavement that allows water to pass through it in parking areas and rain gardens with soil filters.

As a stipulation of approval, the city required a third party review of the proposed development’s stormwater management. The review, conducted by Wright-Pierce, found that the management plan will reduce the flow of stormwater off the property.

The planning board was poised to grant preliminary approval to the project at a meeting last month. But a letter that the board received from Terry Pinto, director of Rockland’s wastewater treatment plant, thwarted that approval. Pinto said inorder to grant the development a sewer permit stormwater collection needed to be separated out of a nearby sewer line.

Rockland has been working in recent years to separate its stormwater collection from the city’s sewer system, which can create overflows during heavy rain events. Under direction of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, the city has been working to separate the combined sewer system, however the area near where the Habitat for Humanity development would connect to is not yet separated.

“The [Habitat for Humanity] project is kind of an innocent bystander in a way,” Pinto said. “The area where they want to connect to presently has combined sewers and it runs along Lindsay Brook and during storms it’s over capacity.”

Anderson and an engineer working on the project, Michael Sabatini, said Tuesday night that they feel the city should handle some cost burden associated with the separation project on the Center Street line in question, since the problem has existed for years.

But Anderson said whether it came down to finding grant funding, or donors to help with the project cost, Habitat will work to get the separation project done in order to allow the development to go forward.

“It ties to us, where it really shouldn’t necessarily tie to us,” Anderson said. “We’ll make it happen because the development of affordable housing is what we do. It’s necessary. We’re in a real crisis and so to say I’ll let a sewer line, or separation of lines, stop developing homes for people would be silly. It would not be a part of our mission or what we do. So we will make it happen.”