AUGUSTA, Maine — Somerville has a staff of three when the town office is open twice weekly. The Planning Board of five is tied up trying to make mining rules and stem public nuisance complaints about properties with too many dogs.
The town of 600 just outside of Augusta is among the cities and towns struggling to implement the housing law signed by Gov. Janet Mills last year. It put Maine on the vanguard of states looking to address a deep housing affordability crisis by loosening housing restrictions, setting a July 1 deadline for municipalities to change ordinances to comply.
Some Maine cities and towns are nearly ready. Many more are making efforts but will likely stretch beyond the deadline. Smaller communities may have to get proposals ready for the spring town meetings where major business must be approved. Somerville’s is in June with volunteer planners charged with doing most of the work.
“If we were a much larger municipality, I think it would be a much easier lift,” said Chris Johnson, a Somerville selectman and former Democratic state senator.
Lawmakers are now considering proposals backed by cities and towns to delay the law that the Democratic governor’s administration and housing interests have opposed while conceding towns may need more time. A short-term consequence could be that the law is used to build expensive housing in places that are ready until it takes effect across Maine.
“The people that have the capital to do that immediately are the folks that are going to want to do that for Airbnbs and not workforce housing,” said Rebecca Graham, the senior legislative advocate for the Maine Municipal Association, which represents cities and towns.
The measure Mills signed last year was championed by former House Speaker Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford. It took on single-family zoning by allowing homeowners to build in-law apartments or other accessory dwellings by right and authorized two units on lots zoned for one. It also allows cities and towns to designate “growth areas” with looser rules among other things.
Those policies were chiefly aimed at southern Maine, the epicenter of the housing crisis here. The Portland region was short 8,000 of Maine’s total of 9,000 housing units in a 2019 study. That was before the COVID-19 pandemic brought a wave of migration that helped push housing prices to record highs in both urban and rural areas.
Mills’ economic development department has released a 20-page document to give cities and towns direction on the law, but the formal rules governing the reforms have not been finalized. That leaves them making plans without certainty about what will be allowed.
Cape Elizabeth, a Portland suburb, has some of the most expensive homes in the state and saw a low-income housing development canceled in 2021 amid opposition. It has prepared draft plans to conform to the law that goes before town councilors on Monday.
But enacting them is all but certain to go beyond the deadline, Town Planner Maureen O’Meara said. The law contains no state penalties for noncompliance but could leave communities open to lawsuits from developers or others if they are not making progress.
“Why would someone do that when a town is clearly making a good faith effort to reach a conclusion?” O’Meara asked.
The municipal association is behind a bill from Rep. Allison Hepler, D-Woolwich, to push the implementation date to July 2025. A group representing planners recommends bumping it only to September 2024. Some Republicans want towns of less than 10,000 carved out of the law, which is unlikely to happen in the Democratic-led Legislature.
Some sort of a deal will likely have to be struck, said Rep. Marc Malon, D-Biddeford, who sits on the Legislature’s labor and housing committee and worked with the Mills administration on a measure being floated now to correct terms in last year’s law. It includes a likely drafting error that allows developers to designate certain units as affordable.
Malon opposes all the bills proposing delays, saying cities with robust staffs, including his own, have few excuses to meet the law’s obligations. He is more sympathetic to smaller towns like Somerville, saying he understands why his colleagues want to move deadlines.
“We’re talking, and I think there’ll be lots of discussions amongst a whole bunch of stakeholders to come,” he said.
The important thing for lawmakers to ensure is that cities and towns are moving forward in good faith, said former Portland planner Jeff Levine, who teaches at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and sat on a state panel that crafted recommendations leading to the housing bill. But he warned against delays that would kick developments years down the road.
“We have a shortage of housing of all types in Maine that’s hurting the economy and the state and also people’s ability to find safe places to live,” Levine said. “The longer we wait to sort of remove barriers to it, the longer that’s going to be a problem and get worse.”