Caribou Code Enforcement Officer Ken Murchison updates the City Council on blighted properties on April 25, 2022. Credit: Melissa Lizotte / Aroostook Republican & News

CARIBOU, Maine — With its urban residential areas mostly developed, Caribou will need more rural housing in the next decade to keep up with current demands.

At a recent community forum, most of the 50 residents in attendance said they believe the city needs more subdivisions and multi-family apartments to better attract and keep residents.

But new housing has largely not materialized since the early 2000s and might not happen any time soon. That is due in part to Maine’s subdivision laws, which leaders say come with cumbersome regulations on local developers.

Initially passed in the early 1970s, the state law was intended to prevent “urban sprawl” in southern areas. At the time, Portland’s city center had mostly been developed, pushing more residents into neighboring Gorham and Windham. With the advent of shopping malls, Bangor’s Stillwater Avenue developed, but with an access road that began intruding on the quieter rural communities, creating suburb-like housing conditions.

While housing developments proliferated, legislators enacted stricter regulations to prevent them from cropping up near wetlands and other environmentally sensitive areas. While a rural city like Caribou wants to protect sensitive and economically viable waterways, the state laws discourage housing developments that the city needs to grow, Code Enforcement Officer Ken Murchison said.

Under the law, developers must conduct engineering, surveying, environmental tests, hook up water and sewer lines, create building designs and construct an access road to the properties before they begin building houses on subdivided lots.

“Let’s say you have a 100-acre farm that you want to subdivide. The costs for all that infrastructure varies, but you could be looking at a $1 million investment before you even build,” Murchison said. “You won’t see a return on investment until you actually sell the lots.”

In Caribou, larger-scale subdivisions were built in accordance with state laws throughout the 1970s and 1980s and more sporadically after that. The effect of that development was largely positive despite population decline that had already begun in Aroostook, Murchison said.

“When you invest in new homes, people will move out of the historic neighborhoods and into these new subdivisions. That leaves these older homes open for redevelopment into multi-family apartment units,” Murchison said. “The newer homes help create more affordable housing.”

That phenomenon most recently occurred around 2000 when a local developer built market-rate, single-family homes on approximately one-acre lots on Superior Drive, a quiet neighborhood just a few turns from downtown Sweden Street.

But in the past two decades, developers have been hesitant to even pursue housing projects, Murchison said, because of the infrastructure investments required. That has put Caribou at a disadvantage compared with more rural, smaller communities.

In Easton, a town with over 6,000 less people than Caribou, a revolving loan fund has allowed the town to fund three new subdivisions. The fund formed thanks to revenues from two large-scale industrial plants, McCain Foods and Huber Engineered Woods.

The town pays for engineering, environmental work, road construction and other costs so that developers only finance building homes and receive a quicker turn on investment. The move allowed Easton to capitalize on its industrial employment opportunities and increased school enrollment.

Unlike Easton, the Caribou region has suffered large-scale industrial decline since the closing of Loring Air Force Base in nearby Limestone. That means city officials will need to be more creative when coming up with solutions, Murchison said.

In the new year, officials will begin conversations with Caribou Utilities District on whether a partnership with the quasi-municipal entity could make Caribou eligible for state and federal grants to pay for subdivision infrastructure.

A meeting with Aroostook’s state legislators could also be on the table, if both parties agree that Maine’s subdivision law could be more inclusive to the state’s most rural communities.

“Sometimes these laws have a one-size-fits-all approach, but the reality is that Maine is different from one end to the other,” Murchison said. “Even in Aroostook, things are different from Houlton to Fort Kent.”