WATERVILLE — Plans for a police station at Head of Falls could be derailed by city ordinances, according to the chairman of the Planning Board. However, city officials contend that outcome is unlikely.

Both the city’s comprehensive plan and its site planning ordinance will come into play when the planning board reviews plans for the 12,000-square-foot building on city-owned land south of East Temple Street at its July 23 meeting.

Planning Board Chairman David Geller said the fate of the Head of Falls project rests on the city’s comprehensive plan, a document that provides direction for growth and development in Waterville.

The comprehensive plan includes guidelines for Head of Falls, and specifically mentions a 1996 study called the Quality Main Street Plan. The plan, which is published in an 86-page comb-bound booklet with yellowing pages, is available at City Hall. The plan mentions the exact location between the railroad tracks and East Temple Street that is proposed for the police station.

“The city should treat this as public space suitable for a future rail station, a major public park, memorial plaza, and riverside walk, amongst other things,” the plan states.

Geller, a Waterville lawyer, said it has been a few years since he has seen the Quality Main Street Plan, but he will read it again before the meeting.

“If a majority of the planning board decides that the project is in compliance with Quality Main Street Plan then we will give it the thumbs up,” he said. “If we, as a board, decide that it doesn’t comply with the Quality Main Street Plan, which therefore means it doesn’t comply with the comprehensive plan, then that will be the end of it.”

City Manager Michael Roy said he hasn’t reviewed the comprehensive plan in terms of the Head of Falls project, but he questioned the validity of the 15-year-old document.

“The comprehensive plan is so far out of date, someone could certainly make the argument that it’s no longer pertinent,” he said.

Roy said he isn’t certain whether projects must be in compliance with the comprehensive plan.

“I need to see those words somewhere,” he said.

Planning Board’s role

The city’s site planning ordinance also could have an impact on the project. The Planning Board could determine whether the project satisfies 20 criteria in the ordinance, two of which may be critical in this case.

First, the project “will not have an undue adverse effect on the scenic or natural beauty of the area, esthetics, historic sites, or rare and irreplaceable natural areas, or any public rights for physical or visual access to shoreline,” the ordinance states. According to the proposal, the police station will be built on the bank of the Kennebec River near the Two-Cent Bridge, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Second, the project “is in conformance with any duly-adopted city of Waterville regulation or ordinance, comprehensive plan, development plan, and/or land use plan.”

The waterfront site for the police station was approved by the council in February after nearly two years of discussion and research, and after eliminating a dozen other potential sites. Public reaction to the Head of Falls plan has been mixed.

The Planning Board has two decisions to make about the project that are necessary before construction can begin, according to City Planner Ann Beverage. The site must be re-zoned from industrial to commercial to reduce setbacks from property lines and the board must approve a general use exception for the project. The exception is necessary because there are no zones that explicitly allow police stations, Beverage said.

The Planning Board will vote on both matters, but only the general use exception vote is binding.

Beverage is confident the Planning Board will recommend rezoning the site. If the board doesn’t recommend rezoning, the council has the authority to overrule it. It is less clear how the board will vote on the general use exception, and, if the board rejects it, the council could be stuck with the decision.

Tale of two voices

Last week, the police station proposal was discussed at length during back-to-back meetings in council chambers. First, the city council held a workshop to discuss preliminary architectural drawings of the project. Then, the planning board held an informal pre-application review. The public was invited to speak at both meetings.

Geller, speaking as a resident, opposed the plan during the first meeting and urged the mayor to rethink the plan. Later, he presided over the planning board meeting.

Police Chief Joseph Massey, who attended both meetings, questioned Geller’s move.

“When you hear someone’s opinion and a few minutes later they’re in a position to make a decision on the issue, I would hope and expect they’ll do it on the criteria they need to use,” Massey said.

At the end of the council meeting, councilor Rosemary Winslow told Geller she didn’t appreciate his tone. It seemed like the planning board was threatening the council, she said.

Geller said his opinions on the police station won’t affect his ability to make decisions based on fact.

“Even though I, as a citizen, may not like the location, it’s not like I’m using some kind of results-oriented decision-making process. I’m not going to go out and find things to back up my position as a citizen, I’m going to look at it and give it a fair analysis,” he said. “I can understand that people would have that as a possible question, but that happens all the time in terms of having a private position and a public obligation to do what is required, and I have no problem separating the two.”

The Planning Board didn’t take a vote during its meeting. They also didn’t discuss the project in terms of zoning, ordinances or the newly unveiled drawings. Instead, much of the conversation focused on the site’s proximity to the river and railroad tracks, topics that were covered at several council meetings.

Planning Board member Dana Hernandez said a discussion about the drawings and ordinances would have been premature because the council hasn’t authorized spending for the estimated $3.2-million project yet, so it was appropriate for the board to explore other topics.

“It was a very informal discussion about it,” she said. “I feel like I was able to ask the questions that I keep getting on a regular basis about it being near the railroad tracks and how that might be prohibitive of police cars coming and going from the site if there’s a train.”

Massey said he was surprised by the Planning Board’s approach to the subject.

“It went beyond the scope of what I thought would be discussed,” Massey said. “I was really hoping we’d be moving forward, but we started talking about things we’ve spoken about many times in the past. All the pros and cons about the site have been explored, so there certainly wasn’t anything new. Anything that was said has been said dozens and dozens of times, and there have been responses to all those concerns.”

Councilor Erik Thomas testified at the Planning Board meeting. Thomas, who voted against the Head of Falls site, spoke on behalf of the project during questioning.

“I’m still not in favor of Head of Falls, but the reality is the majority of the council voted twice to choose that site. Unless some of those councilors decide they want to change their minds, then that’s the decision we’ve made. And now we need to concentrate on getting the best result.”

Ben McCanna — 861-9239

[email protected]

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